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Perhaps the strangest thing about love in the movies is how rare it is. Many films detail courtships and second chances, but if actual love enters the picture, it’s usually in the moments before the curtain falls and everyone presumably lives happily ever after.

In “Love Is Strange,” painter Ben (John Lithgow) and music teacher George (Alfred Molina) have been happily coupled for almost 40 years. When the state of New York amends its marriage laws to include same-sex couples, Ben and George rush to sanctify their union.

But the world says: Not so fast.

George is a teacher at a Catholic school with a morals clause in its employment contracts, and although his homosexuality has been an open secret, after the wedding the diocese fires him.

Without a steady income, the couple are forced to sell their longtime Manhattan condo, and after the fees, taxes and contractual asterisks, Ben and George are left with a retirement nest-egg of about $17,000. So their family and friends convene to help the newlyweds find a place to live.

Until he lands a new job, George moves downstairs into the apartment of gay cops Ted and Roberto (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez). Meanwhile, Ben moves into the cramped Brooklyn apartment of nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows) and his wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei), where their teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan) has an extra bunk in his room.

What makes “Love Is Strange” so special is that the challenges the couple face are more mundane than menacing. Their loved ones are not homophobes, but they are busy people with their own problems, and most of them would not-so-secretly like to offload Ben and George onto someone else. Kate is having trouble finishing her new book because Uncle Ben is such a chatterbox, and she’s worried that he’s a bad influence on aimless skateboarder Joey. Ted and Roberto like to throw parties, which George has outgrown.

A fortuitous meeting at one of those parties opens a new door for George, but as soon as he passes through it, another one solemnly closes behind him.

Like the recent senior love story “Beginners,” “Love Is Strange” is beautifully acted and bittersweet. It’s a gentle reminder that modern love, like a houseplant, needs sunlight, space and attention to grow.


What “Love Is Strange” • Three stars out of four • Rating R • Run time 1:34 • Content Some strong language • Where Plaza Frontenac

Joe Williams is the film critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.