Movie a Day Blog is surprised by how distinct and separate the gay film market is from the mainstream movie-making and -showing business we generally refer to as Hollywood. The classification now contains various genres of films for the LGBT community, from romantic comedies to thrillers and horror films.
One director who has made some of the strongest gay films in recent years is Ira Sachs, who with BOY-GIRL, BOY-GIRL (1996) and especially KEEP THE LIGHTS ON (2012) demonstrated that quality filmmaking is the most important factor in straight or queer cinema. Sachs is an outstanding writer-director, and his new film LOVE IS STRANGE (2014) offers the best evidence yet of his skill as a storyteller and assured director of actors.
Sachs cast John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a married gay couple forced out of their stylish Manhattan townhouse when Molina learns that same sex marriage can still have consequences in contemporary America. He is fired from his job teaching music at a Catholic school; everyone where he’s worked for years knew he was gay but adopted a don’t ask, don’t tell policy. Once Molina became legally married, however, his status was unacceptable to the Catholic Church, and out he goes. I doubt many in the audience thought of that outcome in the debate over gay marriage.
Lithgow ends up having to move in with a cherished nephew (Darren Burrows) and his family, including the requisite pissed-off teenager (Charlie Tahan) and long-suffering wife (Marisa Tomei, playing nasty with some relish). Note to children of baby boomers who have Mom or Dad move in: don’t put them in a bunk bed with any of your children.
Tomei is left to deal with Lithgow on her own, since Burrows is strangely absent from the story, his very occupation a mystery. He is not given the opportunity to develop his character that would motivate him to feel obligated to Lithgow, who is not his parent. It’s the central story weakness in LOVE IS STRANGE.
Molina, meanwhile, can only grab a spare room in the apartment downstairs from his and Lithgow’s old place, living with two gay cops who never rise much above the stereotype, and seem primarily in the story to host a series of loud, raucous parties that drive Molina crazy.
Both of these eminently decent and respectable men find themselves in the horrible position of couch-surfing at an age when they should be enjoying their retirement. Even AirBnB wouldn’t help them, because without Molina’s income, now consisting of private piano lessons, they can’t afford anything in Manhattan, where all his pupils are.
The drama in LOVE IS STRANGE is purely domestic, as Lithgow tries to cope with his reduced status as unwanted houseguest; he drives Tomei and her son Tahan crazy by his constant commentary, oblivious to whatever they’re doing. Molina feels increasingly out of place too until one of the parties leads to an unexpected opportunity. It comes, we are sad to discover, just a little too late.
Sachs never sentimentalizes his characters, nor does he feel the need to make them overtly “gay,” whatever that means in contemporary society, or queer or straight cinema. They are older men dealt a bad hand, and they play it as best they can. The honesty of the performances and the setting is refreshing and affecting. I cared deeply about both of these characters, and wish we had seen even more of Molina, who like the rock of the relationship.
There is an abundance of films about the various aspects of the aging process, and we can expect a lot more as the baby boomers of my generation contemplate what lies ahead in terms of personal dignity and life choices. If more of them are as truthful as LOVE IS STRANGE, we may finally see a new way of treating the elderly on screen that’s better than BAD GRANDPA (2013) or COCOON (1985). It won’t matter if you’re gay or not, just that you’re old.