Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange is a gorgeous 90-minute window into a 40-year-relationship and one of the best films about love in the last five years.
The movie opens with the wedding of Ben (John Lithgow), a vivacious painter who never quite achieved the success he expected, and George (Alfred Molina), an introspective music teacher—finally married after four decades of commitment. The trouble begins shortly after. When word of the marriage reaches the archdiocese, George is fired from his job at his New York City Catholic school—the officiation of the marriage is the tipping point in a previous longstanding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” arrangement. Financially shook from the abrupt layoff and no longer able to afford their apartment, Ben and George are forced to scramble—the two move in separately with the family and friends who’ve agreed to take them in temporarily.
Neither belongs in the environment they’ve been thrust into. Ben is a well meaning but fumbling burden of an uncle to his nephew and his nephew’s wife and son in Brooklyn; George is an awkward third in the constantly bumping apartment of two former neighbors, a pair of party-loving cops.
In fact, it becomes clear how much Ben and George simply belong together. The movie is a brief but incredibly warm look at two people in love, and what makes this piece so wonderful is its simplicity. While the Love Is Strange touches on family dynamics, coming-of-age disappointments and confusions (Charlie Tahan shines as Joey, Ben’s quietly frustrated grandnephew), and growing old, the film relies heavily on the relationship between Ben and George. Lithgow and Molina deliver; their chemistry is tender and organic. One particularly poignant scene has the couple reuniting for a night to share the bottom bunk in Ben’s grandnephew’s room—just a brief opportunity to share space, to be together.
I went back and forth on whether to comment on the fact that Ben and George are a gay couple—because truly, that fact doesn’t have much bearing on the story. Certainly George’s firing is a commentary on the archaic bigotry of the Catholic Church and the unique challenges that same-sex couples still face—but Sachs moves away from that as the movie continues. It’s significant, of course, that the two are gay, but nothing feels heavy-handed; this is just a story about love.
What’s best about Love Is Strange is its subtle insularity. While Sachs skates over more universal human conflicts, he draws us in completely to the world that Ben and George have built for themselves. You truly care for them, both individually and as a couple. They mean something to you. It’s an impressive feat to accomplish in a mere 90 minutes, but Sachs pulls it off gracefully. Put simply, watch this movie if you want to feel something.