Love may be strange, but it’s also many other things: frustrating, testing, beautiful. In this fine sixth feature from Ira Sachs, it’s also a force of nature.
Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have been together for nearly 40 years, and as a couple, have lived in New York City for most of those. It would only be natural for them to finally tie the knot – but this simple gesture of love has a sour side for others, for when they hear of the marriage, the Catholic school Alfred has been teaching music at for a long time decides to cut him loose, despite knowing of his sexual orientation the entire time. This plunges Ben and George into a financial crisis, meaning they have to lose their home. In turn, this presents a conundrum for their family; until they get themselves back on their feet, who’ll put them up?
The glowing charm of Love is Strange comes from the sense of ease it has with its plot; while the stakes are considerable (a couple are split apart, and have to find a new home), there is no hokey sense of melodrama given to proceedings, neither are there any massive obstacles put in their way for them to triumph over; there is only the fact that these lovers must find a new apartment, and ordinary life – with all its myriad distractions and banal problems – is getting in the way. But in showing us what this struggle means to both Ben and George is where the film shines brightest, creating an emotional cornerstone for the movie; another is Marisa Tomei’s Kate, the wife of John’s nephew, who must put up with her uncle-in-law’s incessant ambling about the house while she tries to write her book. Hers is a performance of finely tuned frustration battling with serenity, and it’s an absolute joy to watch the conflict colour her face whenever Ben interrupts her concentration. But performance-wise, this is Lithgow and Molina’s show; you truly believe they have been together for nigh-on four decades, their relationship feeling properly weathered by a shared life, all given in glances of these incredible actors’ eyes or in dinner table mannerisms. Sachs also never lets his film force any particular message about the messiness of loving someone onto us, nor does it spend much time in forging a particular narrative throughline. This lack of focus may be a niggle for some, but it constantly lends the movie a natural flow that services these neurotic, yet loveable characters with the space they need to grate – or grow – on one another.
As is typical with this type of indie flick, it’s a big ask to watch a group of privileged New Yorkers argue with each other – so what if you got kicked out of your expensive, lush apartment, or if you can’t write your novel at home because your live-in uncle-in-law is mildly annoying? But again, that would be missing the point: Love is Strange works on a level that does what it can with its circumstances, and with this film, it would have otherwise felt insincere if there were any ‘big’ scenes imposed by the plot. If you’re of an optimistic persuasion, life is about finding the meaning in whatever your circumstance – and this remarkable little gem very much shares that perspective.