It’s quite challenging to find gay-themed movies everyone can relate to and I’m not just referring to the mainstream heterosexual masses that are squeamish about homosexual love being merely hinted at on screen. I’m talking about gay men like yours truly who yearn to see more films capable of mirroring life in authentic and poignant fashion. Writer/director Ira Sachs has tackled such a problematic task gracefully by making a small miracle of a movie whose truthful portrait of what love is like in the twenty first century has the power to reach out to all of us, regardless of our background, granted we’re willing to listen.
Love Is Strange couldn’t be a more fitting title for this moving drama as it comes across like a loud statement that rings true with the scope of the film and the reality of human life in our day and age. The core of the story revolves around Ben and George, played to heartbreaking perfection respectively by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, a New York couple of over 30 years who finally manage to tie the knot, taking advantage of the new marriage laws in the state. Sadly though, they can’t even relish in their honeymoon bliss as once back home, George promptly loses his longtime job as choir director for a Catholic high school.
With not enough savings to fall back on and George being the sole breadwinner of the household (Ben’s a painter who’s never really made it) the couple can no longer afford paying the mortgage on their apartment hence their only option is selling it and move out. As you can easily guess though, finding an affordable place in New York City is not easy as pie, especially if bureaucracy has copiously drained the profit of your house sale. De facto homeless, the endearing couple has no choice but rely on the generosity of family and friends who offer to host them while they search for a new place of their own.
None of these people, however, has enough room to welcome both men, so the newlyweds are paradoxically forced to go separate ways. George finds hospitality at their neighbours’, a couple of gay cops who offer him their living room sofa. Ben instead winds up with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows) who lives with his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their teenage son Joey (promising newcomer Charlie Tahan). Needless to say that despite the genuinely heartfelt sentiments their family and friends display by lending the unlucky couple a hand, cohabitation is never an easy thing, especially when you intrude someone else’s life.
Soon enough Ben and George begin to feel out of place and the new set up starts weighing a lot on them beyond the separation anxiety. George tries to gather some money giving piano lessons but once back home he can’t even relax as his hosts usually have people over for game nights, parties and what not. Ben on the other hand begins to sense Elliot’s family getting edgy about his stay. Kate is a writer and works from home but Ben is always around and distracts her, trying to make conversation. Joey is not enthusiastic about losing privacy in his room since Ben sleeps in the bunk bed with him. And to aggravate it all, when Ben reprises painting, he manages to get on Joey’s nerves by borrowing his friend as a model.
What the filmmakers do extremely well is telling a story about a gay couple which thoroughly transcends the fact they’re a gay couple. The film, if anything, feels more like a family drama where the central characters happen to be gay. This doesn’t mean they shy away from highlighting the ridiculousness our society still dwells on when it comes to LGBT issues but they do so with class: see the voiceover of George’s goodbye letter to his students at the Catholic school, never going overboard and attack the school for firing him but if anything, encouraging his beloved former pupils to never hide who they are.
The other main reason for this film feeling universal is the interesting look it gives at the other people in George and Ben’s life since their inadvertent intrusion inevitably exposes issues that are only natural for every family. Especially Ben is witness to some deeply emotional stuff with his nephew’s workaholic attitude pushing his wife and son away and Joey struggling to understand his parents and all life around him. Rising talent Charlie Tahan is marvelous at conveying Joey’s angst and confusion without ever falling into melodramatic cliché and the director himself has called the film “a coming-of-age story, as it tracks the growing awareness of a teenage boy as he becomes a man – and what he learns from all the different relationships around him.”
Surely the cast is magnificent from the core players to the supporting ones. Tomei and Burrows convey the underlying tension in their characters' marriage beautifully and their scenes with Charlie Tahan are wonderfully nuanced parenthood-drama that digs deeper within their marital problems. And of course when it comes to authenticity and plain acting brilliance, I dare anyone to not praise Molina and Lithgow who portray these seasoned lovebirds with such sensibility and honesty it simply hurts to watch them apart, and every moment they manage to spend together is painfully affecting but never over the top sappy. The genuine nature of their relationship comes across through the humour they often sprinkle their scenes together with but also the revelation that despite all this time together and finally being married, their love wasn’t perfect but only human, though extremely real, given how they’re still together.
Once again writer/director Ira Sachs who co-wrote the script with Mauricio Zacharias (who was also co-writer in his previous effort, the equally wonderful though quite different in tone and scope Keep The Lights On) has the right words to capture the essence of this gem of a film: “Love Is Strange is about the ways we learn to live – how we are taught and who teaches us. How does the Church teach us about love; how does a piano teacher teach us about music; how does an artist help us see; how do movies teach us who we are, and what love, strange and beautiful, can look like?”
Love Is Strange is released in UK cinemas on February 13th
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor