When Ira Sachs’ new feature, Love is Strange, begins, the title feels somewhat ironic. In many ways, there could be nothing as conventional as the love between protagonists Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina).
The couple’s 39-year romance checks all the ideal boxes: long-term, monogamous, emotionally and intellectually fulfilling, as well as sexually. They’ve been together so happily for so long that it seems inadequate to say that the scenes of their newly legal New York wedding (piano-playing, proud toasts, cheerful bodies piled on top of couches) display a sea of acceptance. What the scenes display is the Platonic ideal of what marriage is meant to be: a natural extension of human companionship; the union of the best parts of two people and of their kin.
The narrative catalyst (and wryly somber joke) of the film, then, is the one instance in which their relationship is perceived as “strange”—the instance of intolerance that begins the gentle unraveling of the plot. When George is fired from his long-held position as music teacher of a Catholic school due to his official declaration of homosexuality, the newlyweds, unable to afford their apartment, are forced to stay—separated, due to space constraints—with their well-meaning family and friends. George sleeps on the couch of two neighbors (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez), while Ben, a painter, moves in with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows), Elliot’s wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their sweet but raw-edged teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan).
Often all it takes is a single injustice to undo masses of good in a life, an imbalance which can define something (at least enough to lend itself to a title). Then again, “strange” isn’t just “foreign and therefore unacceptable;” in Sachs’ hands, it’s the only word that could adequately illuminate the magical peculiarities of the human heart and its capacity for feeling. And, as the two men inevitably get mixed up into the dynamics their borrowed homes, what ensues can best be described as a whole lot of feeling: the irritation, amusement, jealousy, gratitude, resentment, and concern we all feel for the people in our daily proximity, all of which play out through the film’s (mostly) minor plot events.
With this cast of master thespians, it’d suffice to say that the performers are each as superb as they’ve ever been. Molina and Lithgow especially are both heartbreakingly good, their defiant grace undercut by shadows of haplessness, a mildly tragic touch to the lines of their faces. Without being overly demonstrative, their bodies seem to have settled into sharing the space around each other, and respond to the physical motions of the other as if shifting gravity. When they are without each other, we feel it.
In one of the chapter introductions he penned for MovieMaker’s upcoming Complete Guide to Making Movies, Sachs describes his aversion to rehearsal in the traditional sense (“The most time-consuming part of preparing actors for Love is Strange,” he quips, “was several days spent teaching Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez how to play Dungeons & Dragons.”) Instead, he and his cast spent hours feeling out the personal constitution of each character—work which shows in the film’s delicate gradients of human interaction, the unmistakable intimacy even in moments of greatest tension and discomfort.
This subtlety is the guiding principle behind the screenplay, written by Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias and complemented eloquently by a soundtrack of Chopin (yes, it’s that New York). Emotional points are, wisely, left alone, unfettered by too much momentousness for the sake of dramatic convention. The fact that George accidentally overhears his friends’ less-than-discreet “What do we do with Ben and George?” conversation doesn’t change anything (for him or for its participants). The stifled arguments between Elliot and Kate that Ben inadvertently walks in on, when kicked out of Joey’s bedroom, aren’t, ultimately, more important to the story than the courteously amiable faces they muster on Ben’s behalf. There are things that can’t be said, and can’t be helped, and with characteristic tastefulness, Love is Strange lets those things be. The movie never lets politics get in the way of its humanism: Characters all demonstrate a wonderful flexibility, often being sweethearts and assholes in one fell motion. These are good people living their lives as best they can; even the principal who fires George in the first place does so with sympathy, if not compassion, for his longtime colleague.
All this creates a surprisingly larger-than-life humanity. After a difficult meeting near the film’s close, the volatile, achingly adolescent Joey finds the tumultuous swervings of his heart all coming to a head: resentment towards Ben’s invasion of his space and friendships; guilt and sorrow; latent admiration for Ben’s “bad” art. A wave of emotion catches him by surprise and he breaks down in tears in a stairwell, stock-still, while the wind ravages the branches of a tree outside the window. The camera waits patiently for him to feel his way into being OK again. Watching this, it was difficult for me to look away from the wild shivering of the tree—its movements are so dramatic, and Joey’s folded-up dignity is so intrinsically private, that I felt compelled to grant him his space.
Shortly after this scene, the film ends with a luminous epilogue that brings to mind mid-century poet A. R. Ammons’ “The City Limits,” a poem of similarly open-hearted, transcendent proportions: “When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold/itself but pours its abundance without selection into every/nook and cranny not overhung or hidden… the dark/work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes/and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.” Ultimately, Love is Strange‘s coda seems to say, the kid’ll be all right. No one who has as much feeling as Joey, troubled as he is, has for his grand-uncle Ben can turn out badly. There’s a grace and redemption in loving someone who himself knows how to love.
Ben and George are forced to never be an island unto themselves; their relationship is contextualized over and over into various permutations within their little community. As such, the film becomes about how love is learned from individuals, how it can be passed down from generation to generation, like an heirloom or an eye color. How it can ripple outwards, infectiously, in ways we might not even be conscious of—an irresistible, irrepressible radiance. MM
Love is Strange opens in limited theaters August 22, 2014, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Director Ira Sachs wrote the chapter introductions for the upcoming Complete Guide to Making Movies 2015, on newsstands September 9, 2014.
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