The central conflict of Love is Strange, director Ira Sachs’ beautiful new film, boils down to a question of real estate. In the opening minutes, Ben (John Lithgow, The World According to Garp) and George (Alfred Molina, An Education), lovers for almost half a century, marry each other in a small, outdoor ceremony attended by an intimate group of friends and relatives. But when George loses his job at a Catholic school—the Church frowns on homosexuality, and it makes no exceptions for beloved music teachers—the two are forced to leave their tasteful New York City apartment.
Ben moves in with his nephew, Elliot (Darren Burrows); Elliot’s wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei); and their teenage son, Joey, played with impressive maturity by Charlie Tahan. Elliot’s family does not have enough room for George, who winds up in an apartment with two hard-partying policemen. The arrangement works for a while—the cops introduce George to Game of Thrones, Ben sleeps in Joey’s bunk bed—but, as Ben points out, “When you live with people, you know them better than you care to.” Ben’s presence exacerbates longstanding tensions in his nephew’s marriage, and George gets fed up with loud music and all-night Dungeons & Dragons.
But despite Ben and George’s real estate woes, Love is Strange is really a heartfelt paean to the city in which it unfolds. When Elliot’s sister offers to host the couple in her house upstate, Ben gasps: “It’s in Poughkeepsie.” New York City housing laws are a constant source of frustration, but to these dyed-in-the-wool Manhattanites, life outside the city seems unimaginably awful.
Sachs clearly shares their attachment. His camera lingers on subway entrances and decrepit storefronts. He can’t resist gazing at the skyline, and in one breathtaking sequence, a rooftop patio serves as the perfect vantage point.
Films about gay men are almost never films about men who simply happen to be gay; they are also barometers of our social progress. Love is Strange delivers an appropriately ambiguous verdict. Elliot seems perfectly comfortable at his uncle’s wedding, but as he starts to question Joey’s sexuality, his smiles give way to something a little more complicated. And when Joey, who may or may not have a crush on a male friend, uses the word “gay” as a casual insult, Ben is visibly hurt. “I guess it just means stupid now,” he says. It’s a devastating moment in a film that makes you care deeply for the leading men—and wish that the city they refuse to leave were a little more hospitable.