Few filmmakers make relationship dramas as beguilingly sincere and perceptive as Ira Sachs. This New Yorker director has given us Keep The Lights On, perhaps one of the most subtle, honest and emotionally excoriating relationship dramas of any gender category produced in the last few years, and his follow-up Love Is Strange is no less sophisticated. Where he explored the rough fluctuations of a thirtysomething affair in Lights, he leaps on the other side of the age spectrum and plumbs with benevolent empathy and tenderness the less portrayed terrain of mature gay love, casting Alfred Molina and John Lithgow as an ageing gay couple, who – after almost 40 years of being together – consummate their lives in New York’s newly legalised marriage, only to to find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Beneath the gentility and the quietly observed dramaturgy, Sachs seems to carefully prod the age-old struggle of metropolitan liberalism in a still largely-conservative America. Same-sex might be lawfully allowed in New York, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the society accepts it. Sachs points to religion being the setback and the catalyst of a reckoning – as Molina’s music teacher George loses his job from a Catholic-run school, giving up their bourgeois apartment, and resulting to the couple’s separation out of necessity and not by choice. There’s a Woody Allen vein of slight comedy running through the section where George and Lithgow’s Ben having to deal with living separately, both thankfully surrounded by a sympathetic family (Dan Burrows and Marisa Tomei providing valuable acting support) and friends. But Love Is Strange always returns to some beautifully poignant moments that Sachs proved capable of conceiving in his previous film – Molina soaked with rain, quietly sobbing in Lithgow’s arms; a soulful letter read out halfway through the sombre notes of Chopin.
A plot development later in the film feels somewhat contrived, but that’s to bemoan a tiny insignificant detail in Sach’s larger purpose. There’s a crucial character of Joey (Charlie Tahan), an awkward teen who happens to witness his uncles George and Ben’s late-life tribulations with little understanding. Molina and Lithgow exude a wonderfully convincing rapport as a couple and there’s no doubt they own the film, but it’s Joey’s transformation from an inept, fumbling youth to a benevolent, open-minded individual that Sachs is transmitting this message through. Love Is Strange aims for something universal and calls for a collective understanding – that we can be a much more progressive society if the human beings living in it have enough compassion and tolerance for love in all its various forms, shapes, sizes and genders.