After their first anonymous hookup, having met on a phone-sex line, handsome New York lawyer Paul (Zachary Booth) tells Danish filmmaker Erik (Thure Lindhardt), “I have a girlfriend, by the way — so don’t get your hopes up.”
It’s a smug, dickish thing to say. Nevertheless, flash forward a few months. The girlfriend is gone and the guys are moving in together. But if Paul’s self-satisfied quip after their first sexual encounter sounded like a hint of trouble, Erik ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
In “Keep the Lights On,” which was screened earlier this fall at the Out on Film festival, writer-director Ira Sachs draws on his real-life erstwhile relationship with a handsome Manhattan literary agent with a big secret: he had a really bad crack habit. In “Lights,” Paul’s flirtation with drugs at first seems just that — a verboten something extra to further spice up the “outlaw” vibe of gay sex. And, at first, Erik indulges too.
The movie checks in on the couple in increments of several years. While Erik flourishes (shooting a documentary about iconoclast Avery Willard, which grounds “Lights” in some real gay history), Paul starts spiraling downward. He ups his drug use and fails to show up at work — the usual substance-abuse polka. That includes an intervention by friends, time in a rehab facility, time apart, reunions and joyous holidays where the celebratory toasts have a keening undertone of panic. Then, the cracks in Erik and Paul’s relationship start showing up again.
Depressing but often sexy (an unusual combo), the movie isn’t anything like the feel-good romances on which most gay film festivals thrive. But its downbeat ending feels honest, earned and oddly liberating. The film is peppered with strong supporting work from Julianne Nicholson as Erik’s best friend and the fabulous (if underused) Danish actress Paprika Steen as Erik’s concerned and sharp-eyed sister.
Lindhardt has a raffish, snaggle-toothed charm as Erik. You buy him as a talented expatriate with just enough family money and hipness to succeed in the difficult world of documentary filmmaking. Booth, on the other hand, seems a little too young and callow to develop and deepen his character though a narrative that covers almost a decade.
Small weaknesses like that aside, “Keep the Lights On” is an often unflinchingly honest, smart film that explores the difficulties (whether drugs are involved or not) facing any couple as they go from the giddy first months of getting-to-know-you into the harder work of sticking together.
“Keep the Lights On.” With Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth, Paprika Steen. Directed by Ira Sachs. Unrated. 106 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.