Ira Sachs’s new film about love, life, and family stars John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as couple Ben and George. After finally being able to marry, George (Molina) is fired from his post as a music teacher at a Catholic school. Ben (Lithgow) is a retired artist and his chances of finding work are slim. Since there is no money coming in, they are forced to sell their apartment and separate for the first time in their forty year relationship, George staying with mutual friends while looking for a new place to live, Ben housed by his nephew.
The film depicts the effects of sudden displacement within a stable relationship and the alienation of living as a guest in someone else’s home in a way that is frank, charming, and well-observed. Lithgow and Molina lead a cast of strong performances and exude a heartfelt mastery of understated acting that certainly strikes a chord. While the direction and screenplay also affect this rare and delightful tone, the execution of the final scene is lacking and there are a few mis-steps that poke holes in the premise, despite its believable and beautiful rendering throughout the rest of the picture.
Nevertheless, there is much to be admired and enjoyed. For example, from the very first scenes, Lithgow and Molina are instantly recognisable and entirely convincing as a couple. Without the need for additional exposition, they convey a real sense not only of their rapport with each other, but also a thorough understanding of how Ben and George fulfill their roles in their relationship.
Lithgow portrays a gentle, slow and contemplative soul who is neither interested in nor equipped for all the little tasks associated with the running of a house or finding a new one. In one scene in a housing office, Ben briefly looks over some paperwork, while George examines it in detail and asks questions, retrieving related documents from his briefcase. In another scene (that is both awkward and funny), Lithgow muses aloud on a favourite short story written by his niece Kate (Marisa Tomei) while she desperately attempts to be both polite and write another in the now-depleted privacy of her living room.
Molina’s George on the other hand is quiet and patient, yet purposeful and assertive when needs be. While Ben seems more willing to go with the flow, it seems that George misses his past routine, finding it difficult to put up with the constant partying of his youthful friends while sleeping on their sofa, and even less adept to the task of understanding the intricacies of Game of Thrones (which they adore). During the day, George busies himself searching for work and teaching piano lessons, only to come home to a troubled sleep on a lonely couch.
Both partners long for the simple pleasures of being able to come home after a long day and talk before going to sleep, lying next to each other in the same bed. In one beautifully-played scene in which George gives notes to a keen piano student, his voice-over reads a letter he has written to the parents of his former school and Molina holds back tears, perhaps realising that he has been too hard on this pupil and that he misses his former classroom and the classes he taught therein. Molina’s exact thought processes are a mystery to the audience yet the emotion is never lost.
Both actors skillfully match the subtle tone of the film with poignancy, gentleness, and unspoken complexities. The scene in which George loses his job is soft, simple yet strong and pointed, performed in a gracefully understated manner. George and his principal are friendly colleagues and have been aware of George’s sexuality for some time, as have the students and their parents, but the external hierarchy of the church has made a final and non-negotiable decision. Offering prayer, the headmaster tells George he must not question his faith, to which George responds that he still believes but that he needs to pray on his own for the moment.
There are, however, a few missteps that deflate the film somewhat. The ending is uncharacteristically sentimental with an interminable final shot of the film depicting a couple in the flowering of new love and companionship in a way that seems heavy-handed and patronising rather than emotional. Furthermore, towards the close of the picture, Ben and George go on a date night and Ben says something that not only punctures the ideal relationship they have otherwise experienced and conveyed, but also (albeit unintentionally) conforms to potentially harmful stereotypes of homosexual men. It is, fortunately, in a throw-away comment, and is overwhelmed by the bulk of the film, which is an honest, gentle and loving tribute to a fully-formed partnership between two people who love each other very much. Nonetheless, it is a grating moment.
Overall, Ira Sachs creates a charming and powerful glimpse into the world of love, life and happiness, with insightful comments on family, relationships and age. Lithgow and Molina give excellent performances and the film is a remarkable piece of understatement and leaves a warm impression. However, the missteps towards the end of the film (though tiny and few) do make the final emotional reaction a less satisfactory one and taint what is otherwise a beautiful, gentle and utterly enchanting experience.