Ben (John Lithgow) and George’s (Alfred Molina) relationship, in Ira Sach’s virtuoso film, Love Is Strange, celebrates the best of love. Love can bring many things – happiness, joy and companionship, yes. But, also, conflict, mismatch, disappointment, hurt, and loss. The specialness of Love Is Strange is how this film gives us an open window into just what adult grown-up healthy love is all about.
The central theme in Love Is Strange is, of course, love. The film is also about discrimination and the stresses and strains on a family when a family member is in crisis. At its heart, though, Love Is Strange is, purely and simply, about the enduring strength of real love – in all its ups and downs, human eccentricities, and personal imperfections.
Ben and George’s 39-year relationship and brand new marriage are put to the hardest of tests. There’s displacement, humiliation, a very trying separation. There’s even George’s fear that Ben blames him for the loss of his job and all the disruptions to their once easy enough life and love. Ben doesn’t. They talk openly. Listen. Are kind to each other. Even when George comes to Ben beaten down, overwhelmed, crying, lonely late one night – and Joey gives up his room to sleep on the couch.
Love Means Openness & Being There
Love means opening your arms, not just physically but emotionally. Hearing everything without judgment. Or even trying to give advice and make it “all better” when you can’t. Best to quietly take in the pain. Listen. Share it. Give Love. Be there. Ben and George can. But a separation after 39 years of being together, the senior years of life, and having to live with friends and family is no easy thing on anyone or any relationship.
To the credit of their relationship, Ben and George themselves take some bruising, but their love survives. So does everyone else’s. Ben’s family has a few fights, patience is sorely tried, Ben and Kate (his nephew’s wife, a fantastic Marissa Tomei – one of my personal favorites) clash when Ben can’t understand Kate’s need for artistic space even though he wants his own.
Young Joey resents his Uncle Ben’s intrusion into their lives, as well as taking over one of his bunk beds. And, in his teenage way, says some rather cruel and resentful things. Later, (too late for him to apologize), Joey learns that this is not the best of his love. Even if he had reasons for frustration. Never go for the jugular in love relationships. It can leave irreparable damage as well as guilt. And it is the worst of ways to express your anger. It’s much better to be kind and direct.)
Faith In Love & Its Possibilities
One of the most touching elements of this film is what happens between Ben and Joey. Ben is, without a fault, kind and understanding (if not oblivious to Kate), and never for a moment reacts to Joey’s anger. He, in fact, understands Joey and his shyness when his parents don’t. In the quiet dark of their shared bedroom, he reaches out to him, asking Joey if he’s ever been in love.
Joey opens up about a girl he loves from afar, too afraid to let her know, even to go so far as talking to her. Ben teaches Joey about being open and risking hurt so that love has a chance to take seed. The end of the film – as sad as it is in other ways – is only to savor sweetly, as Joey rides his bike to join this girl on hers, showing the power of an adult’s help and faith in the possibility of love.
Never Taking Love For Granted in Love is Strange
This is only after Ben’s death, though, George’s loss, and Joey’s guilt, at what he could never apologize for, give or repay his uncle. But, Joey does repay Uncle Ben in that he’s learned his lesson well. He changes – because of his uncle and for his uncle’s memory.
Joey took the love his uncle gave him and modeled for him in the many ways Ben did – his healthy and nourishing and growth-producing love. This is the best that mature love can offer. It offers the chance to change, to grow, to get better and better in your capacities to give and to receive. And to know who you are and what is most important in a loving relationship. Not cruelty. Or judgment. Love means being sensitive and open to give-and-take.
Ben and George’s “not so strange love story” teaches their family and us quite a lot about the power of this most mature kind of love. If the brand of love in Love Is Strange is strange at all, it’s only because it’s sadly much too rare.
What Does Healthy Mature Love Look Like?
Honest communication even about difficult feelings or fears
Listening non-defensively and wanting to hear
Understanding what is most hurtful (or helpful) to your partner
Never going for the jugular of your partner’s sensitivities
Willingness to change your behavior when changing will help
Weathering the difficult times with patience, love, and concern
Being open and “there” for what your partner needs from you
Giving what is needed as much as humanly possible
Not expecting perfection