Ben and George have been together for nearly forty years, but it’s only thanks to New York’s recent Marriage Equality Act that they are able to get married. But the legal protection of their union doesn’t shield the pair from discrimination in other areas of their lives. Even though he’s been openly gay for as long as he’s worked there, George loses his job as a choir director at a Catholic school because of the marriage. The resultant hit to their finances forces the couple to sell their nice apartment and rely on the help of friends and family to get by. But that wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t have to live separately, due to the limited space available with said friends and family. Love is Strange follows Ben and George’s trials and tribulations as they try to make the best of their situation.
John Lithgow plays Ben, who moves in with his nephew’s family. In Ben you see the most sympathetically pitiable kind of old person: one who has nothing but good intentions but can’t quite seem to fit in with the younger people around him. He annoys his niece-in-law, Kate (Marisa Tomei) to no end, and his presence in his great-nephew Joey’s (Charlie Tahan) bedroom exacerbates the usual adolescent angst. George (Alfred Molina), meanwhile, has to make do on the couch of his much-younger friends. They mean well but their energetic lifestyle of constant social gatherings is an ill-fit for George’s reserved, introspective personality. And more than anything else besides his husband, he misses his old job, and being able to interact with students.
The film has little in the way of plot, with much of the machinations enacted to find a new apartment left off screen. The only real arc belongs to Joey, who in watching his great uncles finds some slight sense of maturity and the courage to seek out romance of his own. Most of Love is Strange is concerned with seeing the small ways that major disruptions to the status quo can change the everyday course of life. And much of the film dwells on the immense sense of longing Ben and George feel, not just for each other but everything else they’ve lost in their forced separation.
In fact, the movie skips the kind of big events that most other movies would spend giant scenes on, including one death (and the funeral!). This is as low key as a film can get while still maintaining some powerful emotion. Much of that lies in the one-two punch of Lithgow and Molina’s performances. They are reserved but speak volumes in stillness and small movements of the face and body. And more importantly, they really feel like a couple that has been together forever, and has settled comfortably into the state of pleasant coexistence. This kind of non-didactic way of showcasing social minorities as human beings is just as important for advancing causes of equality as any righteous screed. Normalization is the key to acceptance.
Love is Strange is a beautiful little film. It’s like a modern-day version of Make Way for Tomorrow, a classic about aging, twilight romance, and how we treat our elders. That was a depression-era piece of work, and the modern economic climate makes for a new method of granting characters their woes. And of course, these days gay people can get married as well (in some states). Sachs and co’s work is understated but overbrimming with atmosphere.