At first, Love is Strange seems to be about the trials and tribulations of dealing with prejudice in today’s world. But at closer inspection, it is really a moving depiction of the challenges of growing old.
By Paul Dervis
One of the more commercial ventures being offered at the Maine International Film Festival is Ira Sachs’s Love is Strange. (It will be coming to the Kendall Square Cinema in September.) The film stars two accomplished actors who have lately been known more for their work in television than human interest dramas such as this project. John Lithgow plays a failed artist who has lived with his music teacher partner, played by Alfred Molina, for more than thirty years. The time is right for them to make it legal; or at least they think it is.
Ben, the painter, has been living off his paltry earnings while being primarily supported by George’s position teaching the choir at a Catholic High School. The school has known about his homosexuality and living arrangement for quite some time and took a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude. This set-up has given the two men the opportunity to live quite comfortably in New York City, buying their own condo, furnishing it nicely, and taking advantage of the freedom (and excesses) offered by urban life.
Then they got married.
Too bad George wasn’t teaching at a public school.
Soon after the nuptials, he is pulled right out of a rehearsal by the Principal into his office. George had signed a ‘code of ethics’ agreement when first hired, and now he is being terminated. Effective immediately. Unable to pay the condo fees, let alone support their past indulgent lifestyle, the two put up the apartment for sale. This being New York, it sold quickly. Too quickly for them to find another living situation. So, they call their friends and family together and throw themselves on the mercy of others. George is invited to live on the sofa of two gay cops that reside in the building, while Ben must go to his nephew’s apartment and make do with a bunk bed in the teenage son’s room.
After thirty years, they are separated. After three decades they have no privacy. They have no independence.
At first glance, this film seems to be about the trials and tribulations of dealing with prejudice in today’s world. But at closer inspection, it is essentially about growing old, and all the fear and sadness that accumulates when mortality becomes more than just intimations.
Lithgow is wonderful as the fragile Ben, entering his mid-seventies with little to show for it, sharing a bedroom with an angry young boy and constantly getting under the skin of his nephew’s wife, Kate, played with surprising subtlety by the often scenery-chewing Marisa Tomei.
The opening shot of the film shows us Ben getting out of bed and taking a shower. Without dialogue, both Lithgow and director Sachs movingly dramatize the pathos of aging. It would be difficult not to feel the aches afflicting the slow moving Ben as he attempts, one more time, to seize the day. Juxtaposed against this poignant image is the scene, moments later, of the wedding, with its energetically false promise of a future.
Molina’s George, clearly a good ten to fifteen years younger than his partner, provides an image of comparative strength. But the separation will take its toll on him as well. He only has a few students to teach piano. Worse, the partying lifestyle he is subjected to night after night in the young men’s apartment seems to age George right before our eyes. The only ‘alone time’ these two newlyweds get must be had in the lower bunk of the boy’s room while he is out of the house.
Lithgow and Molina have fine chemistry. With admirable honesty they convey George and Ben’s humor, bitterness, and frustration.
But the find in this film is Charlie Tahan as the teenage boy, Joey. He swings from guilt to scorn about his circumstances seamlessly. He brings across all the angst and confusion he feels, not only about his troubling family situation, but also the stinging pain of being an outcast in his school. Virtually friendless, he gravitates to a boy his father is weary of. And when Joey boils over, he rips into Ben with all the venom of a hate crime perpetrator.
For young viewers, Love is Strange depicts fears of what the future will bring. If you are not so young, the film, at times, feels like a mirror being held up to your face.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for hs work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.