Afew years ago in the New York Times, musician Rufus Wainwright described losing a year to compulsive sex and drug use as a descent into "gay hell." Gay media watchdogs bemoaned his word choice: How is the hell of drug use and situational promiscuity a "gay" thing? It isn't—except when it is, and the collision of gay men and compulsion is placed front and center in Ira Sachs's Keep the Lights On.
The film's plot is set in motion when Erik, a thirtysomething Danish filmmaker living in New York, meets Paul, a twentysomething lawyer with a girlfriend, via a phone sex line. A month or so later, they meet again, and a 21st- century love story is born.
The squirrelly, entitled Paul is into personality-obliterating binges with sex and meth, which he smokes from a slender glass pipe, sometimes mid-coitus. The somewhat more grounded Erik likes the buzz of mingling personas on the phone sex line and the fun, fast fucks that sometimes follow. But Paul is Erik's major addiction—Erik becomes unable to give him up, despite his ever more repellent behavior.
Keep the Lights On covers nine years, 1999 to 2008, during which the increasingly methy Paul subjects Erik to an array of mind-fucks—from long, unexplained absences to blatant adultery—always making clear that a huge part of himself remains walled off from the man who loves him. Erik's love for Paul is a mystery, involving a masochism that's left as unexplained as Paul's hunger for oblivion. But it all makes for a series of riveting scenes, which director Sachs captures with maximum naturalism. Nothing is off-limits. We see hot fucking, shitty fucking, agonized processing, and the type of degradation that feels like it should be fatal. This is a grim film. It's also fearless, and it captures a chunk of American life that hasn't shown up in cinema until now.
Where Keep the Lights On charts a hell of one's own making, In the Family concerns the type of hell one is thrown into—against one's will and in defiance of one's deepest desires. Writer/director Patrick Wang stars as Joey, an Asian American in Tennessee, where he was raised and now lives in quiet domestic bliss with his male partner, Cody, and Cody's young son, Chip, from a previous marriage. All of these facts are presented with a minimum of exposition—we simply watch Joey, Cody, and Chip go about their days, with the audience accumulating dramatic facts while eavesdropping on quiet conversations over morning cereal and rides to school.
When biological father Cody is abruptly removed from the picture, the suddenly single Joey is cast into the hell of the legally unaffiliated same-sex partner: denied access to hospital rooms, shut out of the family, and physically and legally estranged from the boy he's called son for seven years. You might picture melodrama: waiting-room breakdowns, screaming fights about injustice and what makes a family. You will not find such scenes in In the Family, which adheres to a lifelike minimalism that is cumulatively stunning.
The film is packed with small moments played out in full, with little regard for conventional cinematic rhythms. Scene after protracted scene explores the minutiae of Joey's life, from the beer-soaked condolences of friends to his search for a sympathetic lawyer. In the Family's climactic deposition scene starts at the two-hour mark and runs for 40 minutes, during which voices are rarely raised above a murmur. The film's patient focus is a wonder to behold. This story could have fueled a preachy exposé on the legal horrors confronting gay couples and the desperate, dramatic need for marriage equality. In Wang's hands, it's a nearly three-hour, deeply subtle snapshot of a fully complicated gay life. Rarely is a film this stylistically audacious also this humane.