Keep The Lights On: The Year's Best Unhappy Love Story

Hollywood makes a lot of love stories in which the couple end up happily ever after, but the ones that endure tend to be those where the opposite is true. Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, Annie Hall—love doesn't conquer all in any of these movies, and they stay with us because they play into our shared recognition that finding romance and making it last is one of life's hardest pursuits. Even if we do end up with that one right person, it can take a lot of years (and a lot of failures) to get to that place, and so we're drawn again and again to these movies as a reminder of just how easily our own happy ending could have crashed on the rocks.

The terrific indie Keep the Lights On, which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, is a romantic drama about a couple whose happy ending seems imperiled from the start. "Don't get your hopes up," Paul (Zachary Booth) tells Erik (Thure Lindhardt) when they first meet, and it's as much a warning to his potential boyfriend as it is to us in the audience. The film was directed and co-written by Ira Sachs, who based it on his failed long-term relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg, but it feels less like a score-settling than it does a genuine attempt to come to terms with the emotional fallout. Sachs (who previously made Forty Shades of Blue and Married Life) is now married to painter Boris Torres, and so it's no surprise that Keep the Lights On is both warm and a bit inscrutable. It feels like the work of a man who's in a better place but still sifting through past heartaches.

The movie spans about 10 years, starting in the late '90s, and takes place in New York, where Erik (the Sachs surrogate) is trying to put together a documentary and Paul is a closeted lawyer with a girlfriend. Soon Erik and Paul are a couple, although Keep the Lights On doesn't worry about filling in every little detail of their courtship. Instead, the movie skips chronologically ahead, jumping years at a time, showing where the relationship is each particular moment.

The effect is intimate and seemingly incomplete. We flash right past the happy early years of the relationship; 9/11 goes by without a mention. Yet the emotional through-line of the piece is strong and steady: Like Annie Hall before it, this is a film about trying to make sense of how love can fade. But as opposed to that film, Keep the Lights On doesn't work through the events in flashback. Though the film is set in the past, everything seems to be happening in the unfiltered present, the pain and the fleeting happiness equally intense and unguarded.

When the film premiered at Sundance, some complained that Keep the Lights On focuses too much on Erik at the expense of getting to know Paul. As played by Lindhardt, Erik is a sensitive, insecure young man who seems somewhat awed by Paul, who unlike him has a career path and behaves in an assertive, grown-up manner. Erik never really stops being intimidated by Paul as the years go on, which makes it all the harder for him to confront Paul about his developing drug problem and frequent disappearances.

Sachs keeps Paul vague and idealized—as played by Booth (who's Glenn Close's son on Damages), he's a mysterious figure. But this isn't a failing of the film. Rather, it makes it easier for Paul to represent all the people we've loved and lost, those folks whose hearts we swore we understood until, one day, they walked out the door and we realized we didn't know them at all. Booth seems to know he's playing a glorified, unknowable abstraction—the one that got away—and he's terrific at being withholding and alluring at the same time.

In failed romances like Annie Hall or (500) Days of Summer, the main character isn't just trying to get the other person to love him—he's also trying to figure out himself in the process. That's what happens to Erik in Keep the Lights On too. If Paul's problems are more pronounced, Erik's are debilitating in their own ways. As much as he loves Paul, he has commitment issues, which extend to the rest of his life. (Like a lot of people we all know, Erik is one of those guys who keeps talking about the film he wants to make, and we're not sure if he's ever going to actually finish the damn thing.)

And the more aloof that Paul seems, the more desperately needy Erik becomes, which he sometimes expresses in scary ways. Still, Lindhardt's sweet portrayal makes you relate to the guy—Erik comes across as that version of ourselves who tried too hard to win over that one person we thought was too good for us. He's a deeply human character, and he's surrounded by other flawed individuals, each with their own needs.

Over the film's span of years, a close friend of Erik's enters into a relationship and just as quickly leaves it, all the while wondering if she should instead be having a child with Erik. As tumultuous as Erik and Paul's love affair becomes for them, Keep the Lights On never loses this sense that life is dispassionately marching forward around them, the sort of objective perspective that it's much easier to have long after a relationship ends than in the heat of it.

In real life, lots of people get their happy ending. Yet love's failures stay with us, even while we're sustained and enriched by current happiness. Keep the Lights On ripples with that dichotomy: It's a film made by a man who survived his own heartbreak, but who doesn't pretend to have all the answers.

In keeping with its time gaps, Keep the Lights On feels like bits and pieces of memories, fictionalized and revised but retaining their emotional resonance, leaving you room to fill in some of the blanks yourself. Some will probably go into this movie looking for clues into the Sachs-Clegg relationship. They'll walk away from it learning more about themselves.