Tuesday, February 22, 2011
The Kids Are All Right: Just Like Us
For a good portion of America, this film might just be the most subversive of the ten films nominated for Best Picture. Writing from my desk in blue-state liberal-ass Seattle, a film about a family headed by two lesbians and their biological children fathered from a sperm donor isn’t something I am surprised to see. In the vastness of conservative values outside of my city, the family in The Kids Are All Right is a decidedly new phenomenon. What makes the film subversive isn’t that the two lesbian mothers in the film aren’t toting their kids along with them to Pride Parades and they aren’t bull dykes nor do they live in some sort of gay utopia of tolerance. Instead, the family is—circumstances in which two lesbians must give birth to biological children aside—blessedly normal. If the parents in this family comedy were straight, they would be played by Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt. Part of what director Lisa Cholodenko is striving to get forth is that your “non-traditional” family is just as normal as “traditional” family; that their problems are just as mundane and vanilla as everyone else’s. And just what do we mean by “normal” and “traditional” anyway?
Sexuality aside, the characters Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play could very well be Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt. Nic Allgood (Bening) is a successful OB/GYN who is the breadwinner for her family. She has provided a comfortable middle-class, suburban existence for her partner and their children. It’s a role gender-identified with as male, and it seems like in every family comedy Hollywood churns out, the Dad always has a white-collar job (and more often than not, that job is a doctor of some kind) that provides a comfortable existence for his family. As breadwinner, Nic also takes on the role of being the disciplinarian to the children—another role almost always identified with fathers. The character also has a short, neatly trimmed haircut and wears horned rimmed glasses. Were Nic Allgood Nick Allgood—a straight man instead of a lesbian woman—the role would be cliché.
Jules Allgood (Moore) is just as gender-identified with the typical mother roles as Nic is with father roles. She is the stay-at-home parent, and far more loose-limbed and laid back when it comes to parenting. She definitely has the “cool mom” vibe going for her, as evidenced by the name she gives her son—Laser (Josh Hutcherson). (Nic’s daughter, Joni—played by Mia Wasikowska—is named after Joni Mitchell, hinting at a time when Nic was not as uptight as the character in the film is currently.) Jules is also more aimless in terms of her career. The script makes it clear that Jules has tried to make a go of many different professions, none of which has stuck. As the film begins, Jules is starting a landscaping business which Nic supports financially yet feels will ultimately be another passing phase for her partner. Jules is shown as a woman of hobbies—much in the same way one would expect a traditional stay-at-home mom to take up sewing or crafting or selling cosmetics. It is something that keeps a wife happy and perhaps earns the family income, but isn’t taken seriously as a pursuit by the breadwinner.
For the most part, Nic and Jules share happiness in their family. The pair has developed problems indicative of any couple who have been with one another for a very long time. Their sex life is non-existent. Jules harbors resentments over the fact that Nic does not take her career ambitions seriously. Nic has become a workaholic, and her disapproval about her wife’s career comes from that Nic harbors some bitterness over Jules’ carefree attitude. Cholodenko, who based the characters in large part on her own life, makes it very clear that the struggles Nic and Jules have come not from their sexuality. Instead, they are the exact same sorts of problems that married couples everywhere share, especially if the relationship has been established over many years.
The thrust of the plot kicks in when Laser expresses a desire to learn about his biological father. Because he is fifteen, information about the sperm donor cannot be released to him. Laser enlists Joni’s help—she is eighteen—in discovering the origins of their father. Initially reluctant to do so, Joni eventually becomes the more enthusiastic of the two kids when they finally meet Paul, the sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo). Joni is impressed by Paul’s bohemian lifestyle and the fact that he runs an organic restaurant. She feels a kinship with Paul that she does not feel with either of her mothers. Paul is also seen as most definitely cool by the kids. He rides a motorcycle, listens to cool classic rock (much props to Cholodenko for including three really awesome, lesser known David Bowie songs—“Black Country Rock”, “Panic in Detroit”, and “Win”—to underscore scenes with Paul), and has a pronounced streak of independence. Paul, for his part, is taken with the kids and becomes enthusiastic about being a father. The kids arrange to have Paul meet Nic and Jules, and while the meeting is tactful on all sides, the results are predictable. Nic is wary of Paul’s effect on her family, but Jules is charmed, and is hired by Paul to do the landscaping of his restaurant (to Nic’s disapproval).
From there, the film is thrown into utter chaos as Paul and Jules begin a torrid affair. Paul is appreciative of Jules’ work, and he provides her the support that Nic does not. From that angle it is the next logical step that Jules seeks sexual satisfaction, for she feels comforted and loved by Paul in a way Nic has not provided in a long time. Paul, however, misinterprets Jules’ needs as affection, and he begins to fall in love with her.
The affair is one of the less believable parts of the film to me. Though certainly very flaky and impulsive, I never bought that Jules’ character would fuck a man after being in such an established lesbian relationship. Granted, I don’t personally know any lesbians who have been in long term marriages, but the film presents Jules as someone secure in her sexual identity, and it just seems uncharacteristic of a lesbian to want to cheat on her established partner with a man. Infidelity I can understand, and if Jules was feeling underappreciated, wouldn’t she seek comfort from another woman? I’ll be the first to admit I am not an expert on lesbian sexuality, but the affair feels more like a plot device than a choice a real person like Jules would make. Mark Ruffalo certainly plays Paul as charming and very charismatic—and he’s more handsome and desirable in this role than he has ever been on film—but not so much that he could make a lesbian switch sides temporarily.
I also have mixed feelings about Ruffalo’s character. He’s the only straight, adult male in the film, and the script makes him out to be the least mature person in The Kids Are All Right. Although Paul embraces his newfound fatherhood, he has a conversation with Laser where he tells his son he became a sperm donor for the money—though adding the disclaimer: “I’m glad I did it.” His enthusiasm toward his fatherhood just seems like another thing for Paul to be “cool” at, much in the same way that riding a motorcycle is “cool” or having casual sex with one of his female employees is “cool” or how having knowledge of good wine is “cool” or—and this is subtly implied in the film—banging a lesbian is “cool”. Paul has absolutely zero understanding of the hard work in being a father, and a guy who is so blasé about why he became a sperm donor (though how can being paid for your sperm be anything but a blasé act?) wouldn’t be so interested in his kids.
I wish that Cholodenko wouldn’t have made the only adult male in the film such a jackass—I and many other fathers I know take our responsibilities very seriously—but Ruffalo, to his credit, knows exactly how to play the role. When Nic, after she has learned of the affair, calls Paul, “a fucking interloper”, by Paul’s reaction we know that she has perfectly summarized his character, and the audience knows exactly which character exemplifies responsible parenting. Nic leaves Paul with this: “Make your own damn family.” It’s a thorough of a dressing down one character has given another as any ever on film. (On a personal note, I do dig how with the character of Paul, Cholodenko calls bullshit on all the sensitive, bohemian types of dudes into organic food and motorcycles—she knows it is just as much of an act to get pussy as the rich guy with a cool car is.)
The Kids Are All Right is filled with very subtle and effective performances from its actors. Each performance seems lived-in rather than acted; one feels as if they are spying on intimate moments between family members. The performances from the adults in the film have a disarming quality. Ruffalo as so likeable and charming when we first meet him that when he is revealed as such a cad the audience doesn’t recognize the subtle hints he has planted throughout his performance. Moore is so flighty and flaky as Jules that when her adultery is exposed her contrition is surprisingly genuine; Jules’ “Marriage is hard” speech has power because it is an expression of utmost honesty. Finally, Bening is a knockout. Long associated with more dynamic roles like Carolyn Burnham in American Beauty, Bening is so effective at underplaying Nic that she hardly seems like the actress responsible for creating such a memorable desperate housewife. Bening imbues Nic with another typically male quality—the burying one’s emotions as a sign of strength. Nic’s ambition and strict sets of rules serve as a shield to a heart easily wounded. When she does open up to Paul ever so slightly—they bond over a shared love of Joni Mitchell—it sets the stage for utter emotional devastation, which Bening plays masterfully. None of these characters end up being what the audience’s first impression of them are—these three actors make true human beings out of their on-screen characters. They become people we know.
It is in this familiarity that The Kids Are All Right gains a subversive power. By the end of the film, the audience no longer characterizes the Allgoods as a family headed by a married lesbian couple—they’re simply a family, the kind of people who could easily be your neighbors, or co-workers, or people you go to church with. Had Cholodenko set out to make a film with a grand political statement about gay marriage or alternative families, The Kids Are All Right would have been a failure. Instead, she is a smart enough filmmaker to recognize that in this day and age, a film endorsing gay marriage and “alternative” families is implicitly political; for the message to be effective the characters and situations have to be real, they have to be something the audience can recognize themselves in. To paraphrase Harper Lee, we need to put on the shoes of these characters and walk around in them for a little bit. The Kids Are All Right succeeds—both as a film and as a political statement—because Cholodenko and her actors never fail to make the story personal.
Undoubtedly, The Kids Are All Right is exactly the kind of film to reap the benefits of the Academy expanding the field of Best Picture nominees from five to ten. Out-and-proud gay-themed films have had a checkered history with the Academy. For every Milk, there is a Brokeback Mountain. I don’t expect The Kids Are All Right to win in any of the four categories in which it is nominated (it should be five, the lack of an acting nomination for Moore is a huge snub). However, the nomination guarantees that this wonderful independently made film will certainly find a larger audience, and that audience is bound to be surprised to find that they have more in common with the characters in the film than they realize.
The Kids Are Alright (2010)
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Starring: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson
Studio: Focus Features (Universal)
Total Oscar Nominations: 4 (Best Picture—Gary Gilbert, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Celine Rattray; Best Actress—Annette Bening; Best Supporting Actor—Mark Ruffalo; Best Original Screenplay—Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg)
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