Apartment Zero: After they marry, Ben and George end up on the street.
Apartment Zero: After they marry, Ben and George end up on the street.

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A film as quietly affecting as Love Is Strange comes along only about once a year, and, at the end of a summer season filled with even more mindless remakes and sequels than normal, the timing could not be better. A spare and elegant indie romance about an aging gay couple, Ira Sachs’ semiautobiographical tale is like a small but determined beating heart hiding somewhere deep inside the big, ugly Hollywood machine.

Esteemed character actors Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play George and Ben, longtime partners who get married in the film’s opening scenes. After a celebration at their apartment—including a joyous duet of Dinah Washington’s “You’ve Got What It Takes”—things immediately fall apart. With his sexuality now a matter of public record, George is fired from his job as a choir director at a Catholic school, and the two must sell their apartment and stay with different sets of friends and relatives until they find a new place of their own.

Some films would reach for dramatic tension or build to a crisis point in their marriage, but Sachs is content to live with these characters and observe as they quietly get on each other’s nerves the way real people do. Ben is like a second child to his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows) and his wife (Marisa Tomei), and his need for attention causes a slight fissure in their marriage, as well as a more practical disruption in the life of their son, Joey (Charlie Tahan in a terrific, natural performance), with whom he is forced to share a room. George stays with friends, a young gay couple who are both police officers, and has to put up with their constant visitors and loud Dungeons & Dragons parties.

The film is so subtle, in fact, that it’s easy to miss its ground-breaking handling of the characters’ sexuality. Despite the gimmick of real-life friends Molina and Lithgow (both of whom are straight) playing lovers in the film, Love Is Strange neither lingers on nor ignores their sexual orientation. The film’s depiction of sexuality subverts at least two Hollywood conventions—not only are they gay, but they’re old—without ever devolving into a political argument. It’s telling that the film’s most incisive comments are directed toward the oppressive Manhattan housing market.

Sometimes the film’s refusal to tell the audience how to feel is frustrating; despite George’s and Ben’s sadness at being kept apart, their marriage is never really threatened. You might wish for a little more dramatic tension, but Love Is Strange wants to tell a story in which viewers will find their own place. During this late-summer season in which we struggle to find a speck of humanity amid the computer-generated idiocy and copious corporate product placement, Sachs’ respect for his audience feels like a much-needed correction.

In a way, Love Is Strange has much in common with this summer’s big indie breakthrough, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Both have abrupt jumps in chronology, leaving out key, dramatic events while focusing on others that have no obvious significance. They both see life as a series of moments that may not add up to much but are still worth lingering over. You could say the same for the film.

Love Is Strange opens Aug. 29 at E Street Cinema and Angelika Film Center at Mosaic.