From Milk to Brokeback Mountain to Dallas Buyers Club, films that feature gay characters and break through to wider audiences and sweeping acclaim often have a crisis at their center — whether a raging epidemic, a civil rights battle or life-changing issues of social acceptance. Director Ira Sachs' Love Is Strange portrays the fictional lives of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), older men who've been partners for 39 years and finally marry when state laws allow. There's a crisis at the heart of their story, but it has much more to do with the realities of life in present-day New York City than the characters' sexual orientation. It's not the gay marriage message movie one might expect given today's headlines. Love Is Strange is an elegant and moving film with no real agenda other than to illuminate seemingly ordinary lives in a style to which just about anyone should be able to relate.
The film opens on the day of Ben's and George's wedding, which leads directly to George losing his long-held job as choir director at a Catholic school. Financial woes force the newlyweds to sell their apartment, and the crisis is the very real and universal one of finding affordable housing amid the insanity of the New York real estate market. Ben and George are forced to stay separately with relatives, and the film becomes a meditation on family connections under the strain of close quarters across three generations. Substitute Meryl Streep (who recently turned 65) for Lithgow or Molina, and have her lose her job to age discrimination, and the story could remain largely the same and be just as resonant and true to life.
Lithgow and Molina have been off-screen friends for 20 years, and each has maintained a marriage for more than 30 years, all of which likely helped them achieve their effortless onscreen rapport. Together, they paint a convincing portrait of the intimacy and love needed to sustain a close relationship over a lifetime. That is something not seen often at the movies. The story expands from there, encompassing the complexities of extended-family relationships and even those of the community at large. Co-written by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, the script is brave and uncluttered, and full of the pauses and spaces found in real life. Key events often occur off-screen and are communicated through bits of dialogue or visibly changed circumstances, giving viewers the sense of dropping in on lives already in motion. It's not what we expect from even the most indie-minded film, but Love Is Strange marches to a drummer all its own.
For all the pain inflicted on Ben and George by New York, the film still serves as a love letter to one of the greatest and most difficult of cities. Those unfamiliar with the epic struggle to acquire housing today in New York and other gentrifying urban environments may question the veracity of Ben and George's plight. But it's all true, down to the last painful detail. That's just another example of how Love Is Strange captures something elusive and real of our times, leaving politics and intolerance far behind.