Ira Sachs' Love Is Strange stars John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as, respectively, Ben and George, partners for 40+ years who decide to tie the knot. Unfortunately, the Catholic school where George teaches choir unceremoniously fires him after learning of their marriage, which forces the couple to temporarily take up separate residences. Ben moves into the home of his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows) and his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) until he and George can get their living situation sorted out. The majority of the scenes take place in this household and give us an impressionistic portrait of contemporary family life, with bittersweet dynamics that feel acutely observed and resonant.
Co-writer/director Sachs uses the drama to explore how a group of related individuals, within a closed environment, can impact one another in domino-like ways (both positive and negative). The examples are almost too numerous to mention. Consider, for instance, a marvelous scene in which Kate sits at her writing desk as Ben repeatedly and cluelessly keeps interrupting her, wanting (or needing) to make small talk. Or another in which Kate and Elliot's son Joey (Charlie Tahan) -- who has been displaced a bit when Ben takes his bottom bunk -- mouths off to Ben with a startlingly insensitive castigation that threatens to alienate the middle-aged houseguest. Or the rift that emerges between Joey and his parents, who grow concerned over some delinquent behavior that he engages in and a potentially damaging friendship that he forges with another boy in his class. Elliot and Kate desperately need to communicate with their son (and vice versa), but an invisible wall has arisen between parents and child.
Sachs also suggests that such dynamics may only become apparent to those involved long after the interactions occur. There is a key moment in the final sequence of this picture, for example, in which Joey begins to reflect and recognizes the richness that Ben brought to their tiny apartment during his time there. If only Joey had been able to acknowledge this while Ben resided among them. When lyricist Sammy Cahn wrote that "love, like youth, is wasted on the young," he was presumably referring to romantic love; this film takes the same idea and applies it to familial love, showing it as no less valid in that context. Sachs seems to be exhorting us to embrace our families, to put our own priorities and selfish tendencies aside and actively treasure the time we have with one another. To listen more carefully, speak more slowly, judge and presume more cautiously. Loving and supporting relationships with our kin, Sachs reminds us, are wondrous, but not gifts that everyone has. People who have those bonds should cherish them instead of taking them for granted, for such relationships are fleeting, transient, and precious.
The film also celebrates marital intimacy, manifest most persuasively in George and Ben's interactions -- as in one sequence in which both men share a piano bench and sing to a party of guests, and another late in the picture where they sit at a bar nursing drinks, then embrace and kiss each other passionately on the street. Molina and Lithgow are superb in these sequences, establishing a kind of magical shorthand of communication between Ben and George -- not that of casual friends or business associates, but of lovers who have become one after several decades together.
Though this drama observes a married gay couple, and emerges at a time when same-sex marital unions are still one of the hot-button issues in the United States, it does not, as one might infer, attempt to hard-sell the audience on that subject -- to Sachs' credit, nothing could be further from his approach. Because he makes the Ben/George marriage incidental, a development that the supporting characters and the screenplay take for granted, we somehow forget their orientation and gender and are able to look past the politics surrounding the issue. We begin to observe not two gay men, but two human beings who care deeply for one another -- emotionally and spiritually united, independently of whether or not they are legally married. In this sense, the movie has the same kind of psychological impact that some of the more effective global-warming documentaries have: The emotional pull is so strong that you walk away feeling that gay marriage shouldn't even be politicized.
Sachs also plays his hand wisely by making George a self-professed, born-again Christian who takes his faith seriously ("I still believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior..."), even as he resents and detests the hypocrisy of the Catholic school's response to his wedding. These elements do much to generate empathy for the film's central couple and its implicit support of gay marriage; in fact, the George/Ben relationship in Love Is Strange is so intelligently handled, so gentle, and so empathetic that the movie feels poised to reshape Middle American support for the LGBT community more dramatically than any mainstream film before it, including Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia. The fact that it also happens to be one of the most beautifully and incisively observed family dramas in recent memory, then, makes it doubly special.