After nearly four decades together, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) finally tie the knot in an idyllic wedding ceremony in lower Manhattan. But when George loses his job soon after, the couple must sell their apartment and – victims of the relentless New York City real estate market – temporarily live apart until they can find an affordable new home. While George moves in with two cops (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez) who live down stairs, Ben lands in Brooklyn with his nephew (Darren Burrows), his wife (Marisa Tomei), and their temperamental teenage son (Charlie Tahan), with whom Ben shares a bedroom. While struggling with the pain of separation, Ben and George are further challenged by the intergenerational tensions and capricious family dynamics of their new living arrangements. (Provided by Sony Pictures Classics)
I feel it’s fair to say that most people have sets of issues that can easily infuriate them. As a gay man, inequality against members of the LGBT community touches a particular nerve. While marriage equality may be spreading across the country, some couples that are finally receiving the benefits of marriage are facing new complications, with the example provided by Love Is Strange – Catholic institutions firing gay teachers following their weddings – being one that’s not all too uncommon.
With that being said, I was struck by the film’s approach to the topic. This is not a fiery diatribe of a film, escalating the drama of the relationship between George and Ben as they’re forced to live apart. Instead, the film takes a low-key approach to the fallout of George’s firing. George and Ben are fortunately taken in by family members and friends who love and care for them, but it’s clearly not an ideal situation for anyone involved.
It’s a significant issue. It’s common to hear that AIDS wiped out a generation in the 80s and 90s, but what we’re seeing these days are the survivors of the initial outbreak facing new challenges. It’s easy to take for granted the way institutions like marriage can help create a safety net for old age, a safety net that doesn’t exist for many gay couples still. That Ben has family willing to take him in is significant; there are plenty of gay men who are cut off from family members.
The film’s approach to George’s firing is more complex, while in keeping with reality. It’s clear that those who work with George would prefer not to see him go, and that he’s a popular enough teacher with his students to be able to make an income of sorts as a private tutor. George doesn’t turn his back on the church, but he also refuses to hide who he is, and he clearly calls out those who might suggest he hide his relationship as a poor example for the children he’s meant to teach.
I can’t give enough credit to Lithgow and Molina for their performances. It’s difficult enough to sell a couple who have been together for decades, but it’s harder to sell them when they spend large portions of the film away from each other. Every time the two come together on screen, though, it’s easy to believe that George and Ben have the sort of connection that can only be present after a lifetime together.
That relationship registers through the surprising and sobering conclusion, which was surprising, to say the least. Without spoiling the ending, it adds to the reality of the film, and keeps with the poignantly bittersweet tone of the film as a whole. All in all, Love Is Strange is a quietly riveting story, and one of the stronger films released this year. A must-see.
The subject matter, of course, centers around a same-sex couple, and deals with issues that couples have experienced in real life. Worth noting: writer/director Ira Sachs is openly gay, and his previous films (including 2012’s Keep the Lights On) have also featured prominent LGBT characters.