Homosexuality in cinema too often falls into one of two categories: a problem that forces people to hide in the closet, or a comedy act. What’s needed in the battle for equality are more positive representations. Slowly, this is changing and Love Is Strange is the latest film to alter perceptions.
The focus is an older gay couple in New York City, played by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow. What’s so refreshing about the film is that homosexuality is grounded, relaxed and normal. The film opens with a wedding, introducing us to their extensive and loving family. Every generation is accepting, though that’s not to say prejudice isn’t an issue. George (Molina) loses his job as a music teacher at the local Catholic school – unable to pay the bills, the couple are forced from their home. It’s clear that his marriage and sexuality, rather than his age or teaching ability, are seen as the problem. Later, though, when visiting a housing officer George meekly notes “we’re married” and she barely bats an eyelid. Love Is Strange offers a mostly positive depiction of gay life, which may seem idealistic, but for once this is a gay couple without a chip on their shoulder, placing emphasis instead on their domestic situation.
Now homeless, George and Ben must live separately with their respective families, the film exploring the impact on their nearest and dearest. There is great chemistry between Molina and Lithgow with the camerawork of Ira Sachs lingering on each fleeting moment, so the narrative falters by forcing them apart for much of the film. Together, they provide the film with its strongest imagery. One scene sees George arriving at Ben’s flat having crossed Manhattan in the rain; as he erupts in floods of tears at their separation, it’s a genuinely touching moment.
The rest of the film focuses on the tension between family members. Ben doesn’t want to impose on his family, but unwittingly upsets the already tense relationships between his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows), Elliot's wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), and their troubled son Joey (Charlie Tahan). Paralleling this, George lives with former neighbours – a younger gay couple constantly hosting parties, only highlighting the age gap. The film is a delicate depiction of urban living: warm, soft focus mise en scene undermined by underlying issues of privacy and awkwardness.
The problem is that the peripheral characters succumb to cliché, despite great performances. Kate struggles to writer her novel with Ben’s constant disruptions; Elliot is forever out working; the misunderstood Joey is estranged from his parents, spending more and more time with his (seemingly) influential friend Vlad (Eric Tabach). The script draws Ben and George with plenty of cliché too (an older gay couple interested in art and classical music – who would’ve thought?), but Molina and Lithgow’s sensitive performances transcend such triteness. And in the film’s final, devastating moments, it’s Joey who provides an emotional release in a scene stealing turn from Tahan.
The plot is a little slow-paced, but ultimately Love Is Strange is a tender and heart-warming family drama, with a rare instance of a credible gay couple at its core. It’s a step in the right direction for queer cinema.
Watch: Love Is Strange is released on 6th February.