Little Men (PG). Director: Ira Sachs. Starring: Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina García, Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri. 85 minutes. | The Family Fang (M). Director: Jason Bateman. Starring: Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, Christopher Walken, Kathryn Hahn, Maryann Plunkett, Jason Butler Harner. 106 minutes
In his column for Eureka Street this week, Barry Gittins notes the often fraught nature of family relationships, which can be highlighted painfully at Christmas. Quoting Pope John XXIII, who once said, 'Mankind is a great, an immense family', Gittins says this is 'a big ask that carries a price'. 'The broken or breaking relationships we've limped with throughout the year receive additional stress,' he adds, 'as relatives crashing at your place, like the proverbial fish, go off in three days.'
It's true families can be sites of great love and nourishment, and also of pain and trauma — often, all of these things, to varying degrees. Two recent American films explore these dynamics, and the quiet or profound effects the behaviour of some members in a family unit can have on others in it. Little Men, by New York based auteur Sachs, makes its case with gentleness and understatement. The Family Fang, by actor turned director Bateman, revels in dark comedy and angst.
Little Men centres on 13-year-old Jake (Taplitz), who, after the death of his grandfather Max, moves with his actor father Brian (Kinnear) and therapist mother Kathy (Ehle) into the old man's Brooklyn apartment. Max had leased out the ground floor of the building to Leonor (García), who runs a dress shop out of it. Jake, quietly spoken, thoughtful, an aspiring artist, quickly befriends Leonor's gregarious son Tony (Barbieri). The two boys become virtually inseparable.
But there are tensions here that are beyond the ken or caring of young boys. It is hinted at in the way a friend of Leonor's refers to Jake as 'the grandson'; he is viewed by these adults in relation to a larger picture of which he is not aware. Gradually it emerges that while Max had allowed Leonor to rent the space cheaply, Brian, whose career is struggling, and Kathy, who is supporting the family singlehandedly, are demanding a much higher rate, which she can't afford.
Jake and Tony are happily ignorant of this, their friendship tranquil and sincere. We see them skating in Brooklyn to the beat of Dickon Hinchliffe's bittersweet score. They play videogames, and fantasise about Tony's father reuniting with his mother. At school, Tony takes a punch defending Jake. Nonetheless, at such a young age they are particularly vulnerable to the tides of family. Inevitably, the tension between their parents takes a toll. The fallout is quietly heartbreaking.
The Family Fang is less subtle, but comparably devastating. It focuses on the lives of adults bearing the mental and emotional ramifications of what can fairly be described as an abusive upbringing. Annie Fang (Kidman) is a movie star best known as the subject of salacious headlines. Her brother Baxter (Bateman) is a once successful author now feeding his writers block with pills. As children, 'A' and 'B' were frequent props in their parents' eccentric brand of performance art.
"These films might conclude that families are hellish places, where children are irreparably damaged by parents who are trying to do their best, or are simply self-involved. On the contrary."
Caleb and Camille Fang (Walken and Plunkett; Harner and Hahn in flashback) deal in outrage and disruption, pulling public pranks and capturing their audience's reactions on film. Their 'pieces' range from staging a bank robbery, to manipulating A and B into kissing passionately in public. A pair of 'critics' amusingly debate the artistic merits of all this; what is clear is that the children's conscription into it over a long period was no less than traumatising.
The film is tonally uneven, failing to balance its comedic and serious aspects. But it is anchored by the performances of Kidman and Bateman, whose depth of sadness becomes more vivid as it progresses. After a brief reunion in the present day, Caleb and Camille go missing, with evidence of foul play, leaving Annie and Baxter to wonder if they have been murdered, or if this is simply yet another 'piece'. That they genuinely don't know which would be worse is palpably tragic.
These films might conclude that families are hellish places, where children are irreparably damaged by parents who are trying to do their best, or are simply self-involved. On the contrary. Little Men is an elegy to ephemeral friendships, and a nod to hard experience that signposts the passage from childhood to adulthood. Yet it is also an acknowledgement of the practical hardships that can challenge but ultimately strengthen families where love is richly present. For Annie and Baxter Fang, the love and solace they were denied by their parents, they find in each other, sister to brother. In the end, it is enough.
Tim Kroenert is editor of Eureka Street.