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Writer-director Ira Sachs gay-themed drama KEEP THE LIGHTS ON chronicles the stormy 10-year relationship between documentary filmmaker Erik (Thure Lindhardt), and Paul (Zachary Booth), a lawyer with a weakness for drugs. KEEP THE LIGHTS ON is based on Sach’s own experience with a partner who had drug problems and as a study of addiction, it seems real and sincere. It’s an honest and frank New York-set love story, well-made and acted, but while Sach’s account is no doubt significant to him, it’s a slight story and probably less meaningful for an audience that has to sit through its long 101 minutes. The story starts in 1998 when Erik, a Danish man working in NY, meets Paul on a phone sex line. At first it’s just a casual hook-up but there’s soon chemistry and the two move in together. Paul is gruff and rude and his crack cocaine addiction worsens and drives wedges between them. The pair are not really monogamous – a drugged-out dancer named Russ (Sebastian La Cause ) stirs things up as do other phone-sex contacts but the pair seem devoted to each other despite Paul’s binges which grow more frequent and puts stress on the relationship. Stints in rehab and at an upstate artist’s workshop colony promise reform and reunion, but the pull of drugs is stronger than either could imagine.

The problem with KEEP THE LIGHTS ON is that it presents a monotonous narrative in which the audience is constantly left waiting for something to happen, but the story never builds. Erik and Paul fight, scream at each other, have make-up sex, and fight some more but the story lacks momentum. Both men come off as whiny and enabling and needy and it’s all so serious and really kind of a drag. All we’re left with is matter-of-fact details, some nice such as Erik’s obsession with the photograph of a haunted-looking woman who appears as if she’s just seen something terrifying. There’s a terrific scene where Erik toasts Paul at a dinner party for agreeing to enter rehab but the audience knows, thanks to Zachary Booth’s fine performance, that his heart’s not into it. KEEP THE LIGHTS ON is shot in grainy Super 16 which gives the film (and NYC) a gritty urban texture and it’s enhanced by a moody, cello-heavy score by Arthur Russell. The film’s graphic and unflinching portrayal of sexuality and drug use may limit its audience, but adventurous filmgoers and fans of gay-themed indie relationship dramas may admire it for the acting and technique.

2 1/2 of 5 Stars

KEEP THE LIGHTS ON opens in St. Louis today at Landmark’s Tivoli Theater

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