Sundance Review: 'Love is Strange'

There's a shot of Alfred Molina and John Lithgow walking arm in arm through the same West Village streets as Dylan's album cover and it is among the most touching film images I've seen in a long time. George (Molina) and Ben (Lithgow) are newly married in a legal sense, but have been lovers, companions and best friends for decades. Throughout the picture, but in this shot particularly, you understand the miracle and good fortune of finding love, and recognize the great changes in tolerance American society is currently (albeit slowly) undergoing. The performances sell it, Ira Sachs' muted direction sells it, his script, co-written by Mauricio Zacharias sells it. And, let's not forget, New York sells it.

But New York is also an expensive city, and this very mundane but key detail is what sets the drama of "Love is Strange" in motion. After getting married, the Catholic school where George teaches music is "forced" to relieve him of his position. (He has signed a contract stating he will not make grand gestures in defiance of Church doctrine or some such nonsense.) George doesn't call up the ACLU, but he and Ben (a little older, and with no real income) soon realize they have to adjust to a new standard of living.

They need to move, and anyone from New York knows that you just can't up and do that on a snap. While they've been invited to stay with a niece in Poughkeepsie, these are city guys. As they look for new digs, Ben moves in with his nephew (Darren E. Burroughs) and George heads to the couch of a neighbor couple (young gay cops!) in their building.  I say Ben goes to live with his nephew, but he's a busy filmmaker (and, if you listen closely to the subtext, probably having an affair with someone) so he's really spending time with his nephew's wife and son. The wife, Kate (Marisa Tome)i, loves "Uncle Ben," and her heart breaks for him - but they have a small Brooklyn place and she's trying to complete her new novel. Ben puttering around making tea and small talk is doing more than just cramping her style.

The emotions in "Love is Strange" are big, but it is not a histrionic film. Some might even accuse it of being slow. (These people need to accept a life beyond my beloved superhero movies, and I'm doing my best to aid them.) Excitingly, the script takes unpredictable curves, and as the movie progresses, Ben’s grand nephew (Charlie Tahan) eventually becomes one of the most important characters. By the last frames, surprisingly, he is the film.

All of the acting is absolutely top notch, but if I have to heap my praise on one person it has to be Molina. It's something in the eyes - the mix of sadness and hope. "Love is Strange," especially considering Sachs' "Keep the Lights On," is something of a chaste film. The topic of sex comes up, and there is no lack of physical closeness between the leads, but at this advanced age it is much lower down on the list of priorities. Whether you find this depressing or comforting is up to you. Sachs seems more concerned with illustrating how love, real love, is such a full-bodied experience that relying solely on physical intimacy to express it isn't necessary when you have characters and performers that can give nuance in other ways.

As same-sex marriage becomes more normalized in society we'll be seeing more films that incorporate gay characters whose story purpose is more than just being gay. Sachs' film, however, will still be a standout. How often do we see stories where a lead character is 71 years old and still undergoing transformation? And Sachs' seemingly-effortless manner is no joke. The etudes of Friedrich Chopin accompany many of the finely crafted scenes in "Love is Strange." The small pieces which add up to an emotional catharsis work as perfect accompaniment.

SCORE: 8.9 / 10