After 39 years together, a recently married gay couple is forced to sell their New York apartment and live apart. With growing money concerns, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) must now rely on the generosity of their friends and family.

[Read interview with actor John Lithgow]

Acute observation of same-sex and the city.

SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: The couple at the centre of Love Is Strange, the delicately observed new film from Keep the Lights On director Ira Sachs, lives in a divided New York City. Though a change in the law allows George (Alfred Molina) and Ben (John Lithgow) to marry after almost 40 years together, news of their marriage puts George’s job at a Catholic school in jeopardy. Like Chinatown and Little Italy, in the big city progress and the repressive status quo exist side by side.

Like Chinatown and Little Italy, in the big city progress and the repressive status quo exist side by side.

Love Is Strange opens with George and Ben’s wedding, an idyllic event punctuated by warmly felt toasts from friends and family members, including Ben’s niece-in-law (Marisa Tomei), a novelist with an artist’s gushy, self-dramatic flair. George and Ben are artists too (a musician and a painter, respectively), of the generation that found New York City nurturing – to a point, anyway – of their ambitions and hospitable to their humble means. But when George loses his job their apartment soon follows. To lose a good New York apartment has always been a kind of tragedy; to lose it these days, when rents are higher and space more scarce than ever, is to lose the tenuous foothold artists especially maintain in the city.

This is made clear by the response to the couple’s plea for help. The same people who celebrated and swore allegiance to Ben and George go rigid when asked to open their homes. Sachs handles the scene expertly, and throughout Love Is Strange lightly but steadily illuminates the paradox city living, with its strict demarcations of space and fiercely protected façade of privacy, makes of our secondary relationships. 'Sometimes, when you live with people, you know them better than you care to," says Ben, especially in tiny urban apartments. Ben moves in with his nephew’s (Darren E. Burrows) family, where he shares bunk beds with the surly teenage Joey (Charlie Tahan); George couch-surfs at the home of two friends (Manny Perez and Cheyenne Jackson) whose constant parties prove maddening. Neither man considers the offer of Ben’s niece, who has a large house two hours away, to come live with her. The city it must be, whether the city still obliges or not.

Sachs doesn’t dwell on the Catholic school’s decision – the indictment is plain. George’s decision to advertise the wedding, disrupting a tacit 'don’t ask, don’t tell" policy with the school, is treated only vaguely. (Even modern Catholic schools are known to have moral clauses; a decade ago a teacher friend of mine went to great lengths to hide from her employer the fact that she was living with her boyfriend out of wedlock.) Instead the focus rests on scenes of displacement, domestic and psychological balances upset with frightening ease. Rather than letting scenes of Ben chatting incessantly while Tomei tries to write and George languishing amid another night of revelry bloat or play for laughs, Sachs treats his characters and their situations with deft generosity, adding dimension to what might have been a less nuanced affair. Tomei is especially good as the strained, somewhat brittle novelist – not unkind but never entirely genuine, either – forced to share her private space (and drop her public persona) with an outsider. Tahan is also exceptional as the stroppy kid unhappy about sharing his bedroom with an older gay man.

But it’s the tender performances of Lithgow and Molina that carry the film. Chopin preludes play throughout Love Is Strange, setting an elegiac mood. Getting old never was for sissies, but entering old age in New York City holds special indignities. This pair, of a generation of gay men who fought for civil rights and survived the AIDS crisis, have sustained each other through what should have been the worst. Sachs’s poised, deliberate touch culminates in two unexpected moments, both involving Tahan, that set the film’s battles for both freedom of domain and meaningful attachment into luminous relief.

Watch 'Love is Strange'

Thursday 27 February, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)

USA, 2014
Genre: Drama, Romance
Language: English
Director: Ira Sachs
Starring: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Darren E. Burrows
What's it about?
After Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina) get married, George is fired from his teaching post, forcing them to stay with friends separately while they sell their place and look for cheaper housing, a situation that weighs heavily on all involved. From Ira Sachs, writer-director of Little Men (2016).

John Lithgow talks Love Is Strange and why he and Alfred Molina make a great gay couple