The Kids Are All Right: It's a Family Affair

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Moore+Bening-Kids
Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in a scene from Lisa Choldenko's The Kids Are All Right. Photo credit: Suzanne Tenner. Studio: Focus Features

I am proud to say that I was a hard sell for The Kids Are All Right, the family comedy-drama starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore and opening in limited release on July 9th.  A mainstream film featuring a lesbian-headed family?!  And the leads are among two of the finest actors working right now? With seven Oscar nominations between 'em? Oh you betcha I’m there.  But I’m there with both expectations and hackles raised.

 The attitude I bring to the movie theater approximates what you might bring to the living room in which your daughter's prom date sits. Hopefully nervously.

Picture your kid, a sweet tender thing you’ve dedicated the last decade and a half to protecting and promoting, who deserves the best, or at least a fair shake, goddamn it.  And then there's the date, a Usual Suspect with a history of stringing folks along and then breaking their hearts, or worse.  The sweet tender thing in this construction, though, is me and my people: lesbians, even more specifically, lesbian-headed families, and the kids in them. The prom date I’m looking askance at? Commercial Hollywood film.

I have a right to be squinty-eyed.  For most of my movie-going life, commercial Hollywood film has left me and mine either ignored along the walls surrounding the dance floor, quietly convincing ourselves of our worth despite the lack of  attention, or attended to for just a moment, only to be betrayed in the next, accidentally or even maliciously.

I will never forget sitting, or rather eventually slinking down lower and lower in my seat, in a suburban Minneapolis movie theater watching Basic Instinct in the early 1990s.  A mainstream Hollywood movie that had a lesbian in it! Plus a bisexual woman!  I had to go, and took with me my gal sweetie, a friend, and her gal sweetie.  The overwhelmingly heterosexual crowd watched placidly as blood splattered the screen in the opening scene, and then – I’m not making this up – later groaned and called out in disgust when Sharon Stone kisses her female lover.  For Michael Douglass’ benefit.  Which lover, to no one’s surprise, turns out to be a homicidal, suicidal, man-hating basket case.

Things were only a tad better in the mid-1990s romantic comedy Chasing Amy. Again, I was lured to the theater with the hopes that somehow, something resembling “our” truths would win out over “their” fantasies about us. Turned out, not so much. Ben Affleck made his big screen debut playing – surprise! – the handsome, charming guy who turns the heretofore disgruntled lesbian gal happy and straight.  I’m oversimplifying just a tad here, but not much.  I remember spending about 45 minutes after the movie trying to explain to an open-minded-yet-ignorant straight guy chum just what in the Sam Hill was wrong with all that.

Yes, there have been finer moments for us gals in mainstream film – Bound, the noir thriller with Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon springs eagerly to mind – but the disappointments have been heavy ones. Tragedy, pathology, and disposability have figured way, way too large in our film presence thus far. If we’ve been present at all.

I offer up these highlights of my theater-going past in order to help explain the squint in my eye as I entered the theater for a sneak preview of The Kids Are All Right. The good news is that, in the ten to twenty years since I slunk down in that theater seat, interesting things have been happening to me and mine, not least of which has been that we’ve been gayby-booming big time.  That, and we've been winning bits and snatches of civil rights, even if we're shoved one step back for every two steps we take forward.  And some of  us -- some super-smart ones at that -- have been worming our ways up through film school and the film-making industry, becoming Hollywood's best kept secret.

This, as you might have suspected, leads us directly to writer-director (and lesbian mum) Lisa Cholodenko and her new film The Kids Are All Right.  You may recall Colodenko's work in the creepy but compelling High Art, in which Allie Sheedy's junkie art photographer seduces Rhada Mitchell's ambitious magazine editor, Patricia Clarkson dripping around in the background as a tragicomic former Fassbinder actress).  Or perhaps you'll remember the somewhat less creepy but equally naughty Laurel Canyon, in which Frances McDormand's Los Angeles music mogul seduces the young lead singer of the band she's producing, while her uptight son Christian Bale watches his fiancée Kate Beckinsdale slip deeper and deeper into his mother's debauched scene.  Both are closely observed, deeply atmospheric studies of boundaries transgressed and innocents seduced.

The atmosphere is far sunnier in The Kids Are All Right, but seduction is still afoot.  The interesting question is, Who is being drawn into whose world? Annette Bening plays Nic, a high-strung, wine-swilling, bread-winning doctor; Julianne Moore plays her partner Jules, flaky and aimless, who’s taking a stab at landscape design, her third career foray. Their older daughter Joni, played by Mia Wasikowska (late of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland), hangs in that delicate, thoughtful summertime suspension between high school and college.

It’s Joni's younger brother Laser, played by teen heartthrob Josh Hutcherson (late of Journey to the Center of the Earth), who bookends the film.  His character provides catalyst for the film’s movement, both in its breezy opening scenes as he cycles through L.A. with a skateboarding chum, and when he asks his sister – who’s of age now – to contact the man whose sperm their mothers used to conceive them.  To Cholodenko and her co-screenwriter Stuart Blumberg's credit, the plot exposition, even around such potentially puzzling matters as identity release sperm donation, moves swiftly and clearly. ("Identity release" sperm donors are those who choose to be accessible to children conceived with their sperm upon the children's reaching adulthood. Others are either known all along, officially or personally, or are anonymous.) At the end of the film, it's Laser's vision we're left with.

Mark Ruffalo plays Paul, every lesbian’s dream/nightmare sperm donor: he's a handsome, affable, organic veggie-growing, funky upscale restaurant-running, motorcycle-riding, magnetic dude. As in, steal away the kids’ affections magnetic.  Hi-jinx and complexity ensue when he responds to the kids' request to meet him, goes on to meet the moms, and hires Jules to redesign his garden.

Suffice to say that, because this is a story, by definition requiring tension and conflict to exist, stuff happens.  Stuff which, because this is a story, has no obligation to be completely plausible, least of all statistically significant -- it just has to be plausible enough, and work within the confines of the characters' journeys in the film.  This is stuff which the trailer lays bare, and while it might send many folks to the movie with happy expectation (man candy! more images of Mark Ruffalo in the buff!), it will saddle others with a gnawing dread.  No disrespect to Mr. Ruffalo, who was engaging throughout, but I sympathize with that dread (if it could speak, it would be muttering from between clenched teeth, “If our first shot at a lesbian family’s mainstream film portrayal gets splatt-balled by another hetero romance I’ll scream!”).

To those of you feeling that dread gnawing at you, I say, “Scream not. Wait out the movie before you alarm your fellow theater goers. Cholodenko and Blumberg are up to something interesting here.”  As to the rest, I say, "Get ready for plenty of Mark Ruffalo's fuzzy nekkid body in flagrante delicto!"

I’ll step aside here to note that if you must have more plot synopsis I direct you to the many other reviews of the film – from NPR (“an adorably high-spirited romp” that “puts the fun in dysfunction”) to the Chicago Tribune (“instant classic”) to the Los Angeles Times, (“witty, urbane, and thoroughly entertaining”) to Salon.com, (“ranks with the most compelling portraits of an American marriage, regardless of sexuality, in film history”). I find myself  in agreement with most of them, with the sad exception of Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review, whose mis-read toward the end reveals far more about the reviewer’s blinkered vision, I fear, than the film’s heart.

I'll further note that yet more commentary on the film's social and political statements will follow in a future post in which I slice up and share the fruits of a media roundtable I participated in with the director and Ms. Bening. Now back to the review.

As in Bound, which took familiar noir plot elements for a lesbian spin, Kids takes familiar elements – a young woman’s coming of age and cutting the apron strings that bind, in this case two pairs of 'em; an established couple’s relationship, sagging with neglect, rocked by the introduction of a new element; a family’s stretching and reshaping as it undergoes inevitable transformations – and breathes new life in them as they’re re-told by fresh voices.  The acting throughout is superb; even the young castmembers hold their own among towering vets like Bening and Moore.  You want to watch each of these people.  And Cholodenko lets you: she holds the camera on them just long enough so that we see the twinkle of complexity and paradox in moment after moment – and then cuts before it’s a moment too long.

The dialog crackles with wit, ringing true and revealing – most entertainingly in Ruffalo’s Paul, who spouts a cornucopia of groovy dudeisms.  In a heart-to-heart with Laser about his bad-element friend, Paul says “That’s not ‘amped,’ that’s just being a tool.” Or, in lieu of “shut the f**k up”: “shut the front door.” In a rare and well-earned moment of communion with Nic, he reaches for her hand and says, jovially,“My brother from another mother!”

It’s a tribute to the strengths of the performances – Ms. Bening’s being by far the most riveting – that so much of the character development and plot movement happens outside of the dialog, in reaction shots.   Bening is simply a joy to watch, and in one minutes’ long scene in particular, she takes Nic through a series of thoughts and feelings, first casual, then building concern, then finally shocked gravity.  Cholodenko keeps the camera close on her face, the ambient sound at a distance, then brings the sound in all warbly, as if underwater.  It’s the only self-consciously “filmic” moment in the movie, and it’s well-spent.  If a single scene can earn you an Oscar nomination, this one would be it for Bening in this film.

There’s lots more to enjoy about The Kids Are All Right – the infectious, über-groovy soundtrack, the disciplined attention to detail (when we first see him, Paul chomps an apple as he exits his organic garden, a guy Eve; both Nic and Jules sip their morning coffee out of “World’s Best Mom” mugs).  The laugh-out-loud humor.  During an exquisitely awkward scene, Laser asks why his moms had gay male porn (rather than lesbian porn) in their dresser drawer (it's a long story how he got there).  Moore’s Jules begins to explain the mysteries of externalized desire in an abstract, blurry intellectual fashion, going on to say, “Anyway, with lesbian porn, usually they hire two straight women to do the scenes, and the inauthenticity—“ “That’s enough!” blurts Nic, hastily interrupting.  It's as if the screenwriters were smiling and winking at every audience member -- the lesbo-cogniscenti and the along-for-the-ride visitors alike.

The main thing to enjoy about this film, though, is the love of people in it – all the people, even the cads. I went twice, which helped, since my appreciation, like the wine Nic knocks back throughout the film, became deeper and more nuanced over time.  The first time I saw it was several weeks ago with an old friend, the second time was last night with my old partner – we'll be together 16 years this month.  She laughed out loud throughout the first hour-plus, and then for the last twenty minutes held my hand in a vice grip as she dabbed at her eyes and sniffled.  We have two kids, after all,  closely resembling those in the film.  Give or take a decade or so.  What we saw up on the screen was something we’re utterly unaccustomed to seeing there: not just something nearer to our relationship and our family than we’ve ever seen, but the reflection back of something deeper.  The simple fact we know to be true: our kids are all right. So are we all.

 

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