Ben and George have been together 39 years, sharing a cozy New York apartment stocked with mementos, books, music, art - some of it by Ben, a painter. From the opening scene of Ira Sachs' illuminating "Love Is Strange" - a rise-and-shine, get-the-day-going affair - it's clear these two men, played with beautiful depth and nuance by John Lithgow (Ben) and Alfred Molina, know each other, love each other, care for each other.
But this day is different: There's an urgency to their morning rituals, a tinge of panic as they step onto the street. Ben and George are about to be married.
And after a small ceremony in a park, ringed by friends and family, and an informal celebratory reception, it's assumed that their lives will proceed as usual. But no: George, the longtime music teacher at a Catholic school, loses his job - gay marriage, it won't do. Without his income, the couple can't afford to keep their apartment; it will have to be put on the market.
Until George can find another job, and until they find a new place to live, the men have to split - the first time they've been apart. George moves in with neighbors, two cops (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez), and Ben to Brooklyn, shacking up with his nephew (Darren Burrows); his nephew's writer wife (a great Marisa Tomei); and their moody teenager, Joey (Charlie Tahan). Ben takes the empty bunk in Joey's room - an arrangement that the kid, especially, isn't pleased with.
If this sounds like the plot contrivances of a sitcom, remember this is New York City, where real estate rules the day. Ben and George struggle to adjust to their temporary situations - the gay cops like to party, Tomei's Kate works from home, and Ben's constant hovering, his jolly chats, begin to wear.
But mostly they struggle with the solitude, the separation.
"Love Is Strange" is about the bonds of a relationship, and the pressures, foreign and domestic, that can put a relationship to the test. It's a generational story - Ben and George are AARP material, looking ahead to those proverbial sunset years, looking back to accomplishments, disappointments, the experiences that defined them. And it is a film about learning, and changing, and learning to change.
Although Ben and George are at the movie's fulcrum, Sachs gives his other characters their due. Joey, practically oozing adolescent angst, is on the outs with his parents, and if Ben thinks he can impart wisdom or guidance, well, it doesn't come easy.
"Love Is Strange" has a gentleness and an empathy that inspire. As Ben and George, two men who have walked through decades together, good times and bad, Lithgow and Molina are exceptional - you believe them, wholly. The movie is a heartbreaker - and heartening, too.