Love comes in many forms. It can exist as the experience of first love between a young couple, the frustrating protective love a parent has for their child or the love a couple who have been together for nearly 40 years share. In Love is Strange, we see all three, and director Ira Sachs has chosen to centre his story of love on the veteran couple of 39 years, George (Alfred Molina) and Ben (John Lithgow, where he can finally shake off the serial killer he played in Dexter or the kooky alien he played in 3rd Rock from the Sun). It’s touching and subtle but it still manages to draw the audience in.
Love is Strange starts with the joyous occasion of Ben and George’s wedding. Joyous because finally they are able to marry, and joyous because Molina and Lithgow play the loving couple so well. Like a fly on the wall, we witness the ceremony and the endearing duet on the piano (a hearty rendition of classic 60s hit “You’ve Got what it Takes”) between the newlyweds, and all seems to be going swimmingly. It seems like the wedding was the final piece of the puzzle to their perfect lives together – they have their home together, their family and friends were present to witness their declaration of love, and they were happy.
Things take a downward turn when George (Molina) loses his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school. Seems the head teacher now has a problem with his gay teacher marrying, and George reluctantly leaves. But George and Ben live in Manhattan, and with just one income for the time being, they are forced to sell the apartment they’ve lived in together for 20 years and stay with Ben’s relatives. None of Ben’s family has enough room to take them both in, so they are split up – Ben living with his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows) and wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and George living with their friends Ted and Roberto.
Love is strange because here we see that love is a struggle. Sachs puts a contemporary spin on the scrappy newlywed couple story because this time, it’s not the typical story of a young couple with no money and a new baby in a tiny flat. It’s an elderly gay couple who have lost what they’ve worked so hard for due to discrimination. Their whole situation is hard for them. As gay men, as older men, as an older couple wanting to remain in pricey Manhattan, the city they’ve built their lives in. Their battle to keep it together and how they manage to hold their love in place is what makes this movie so endearing.
While Lithgow’s Ben is the gentler of the two, Alfred Molina’s George is the firecracker. Apart from still holding onto his faith despite the dismissal, he’s also very dignified in his final goodbyes to the parents of his pupils, telling them, “The last thing I want them (his pupils) to think is that they have to hide who they are in order to not get in trouble”. He lets his actions do the talking, because he knows he’s done nothing wrong.
We see the love – sometimes a bit stilted – between Elliot and Kate, and how they are raising their teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan). Marisa Tomei as an irritated Kate is not bad. Her portrayal of Kate makes her out to be an accessible character, not an unreasonable one. She’s at odds with her husband; her son is at an age where rebellion is just par for course and having ole Uncle Ben underfoot disrupts her working from home. Elliot and Kate’s lacklustre relationship is the complete opposite to Ben and George’s warm relationship, and the stress of raising Joey doesn’t help.
Despite all this, George and Ben are still helped by their family and friends, and while it might be tough for Elliot and Kate, George and Ben never act out against their host families. George stays with their friends Ted (30 Rock’s Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez) but feels out of place with his younger friends’ crowd, yet he stays, and his friends happily let him stay.
It’s interesting to see that Sachs has incorporated George’s innate sense of duty to his Catholic beliefs in this film. Despite being fired from his Catholic school, George doesn’t let that get in the way of his faith. When the principal fires him and then offers that they pray together, George boldly tells him where to go: “I still believe Jesus Christ is my saviour, but I would like to pray on my own”. George knows who he his, and he knows that he only wants his supporters in his corner.
Love is Strange doesn’t have any laugh-out-loud moments, or any big dramatic plot twists, but this is why it works so well. It’s the story of a couple who, through the love from the people around them, are able to hold onto their love for each other, and everyone is able to learn that while love is strange, it is also all that matters.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Love is Strange is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Its final screening is Monday August 11th at 9pm. Tickets and details: http://miff.com.au/program/film/5836