And How Are The Kids?

Dana Stevens at Slate:

Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (Focus Features) is the movie we’ve been waiting for all year: a comedy that doesn’t take cheap shots, a drama that doesn’t manipulate, a movie of ideas that doesn’t preach. It’s a rich, layered, juicy film, with quiet revelations punctuated by big laughs. And it leaves you feeling wistful for at least three reasons: because of what happens in the story, because the movie’s over, and because there aren’t more of them this good.

Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) are a middle-aged lesbian couple in Los Angeles with two teenage children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Nic, a physician, is the breadwinner of this stable, well-off family, while the unfocused Jules has vague plans to start a landscaping business on her partner’s dime. Near the start of the movie, Joni, at her younger brother’s urging, calls up the sperm bank that provided their mothers with genetic material 18 years ago. Behind their mothers’ backs, the siblings make contact with their hitherto anonymous biological father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a hedonistic restaurateur who’s flattered by the attention but unsure how to proceed. Gradually, Paul is incorporated into the fringes of the family: The children bring him home for an excruciatingly awkward lunch, and against Nic’s wishes, Jules takes on the job of landscaping his yard.

It’s fitting that gardening—Jules’ landscaping project, Paul’s achingly trendy farm-to-table restaurant—plays such a large role in The Kids Are All Right, because the movie is at heart about the ecosystem of a family, and the way that system changes when an exotic species is introduced. The presence of Paul changes everything, exposing fault lines in Nic and Jules’ relationship and forcing the children to defy their mothers and reassess their peer friendships. (A subplot in which the introverted Laser finally stands up to his jerky best friend is particularly well-handled.)

Rob Hunter at Film School Rejects:

The Kids Are All Right is a bright and beautifully acted look at what it means to be part of a family. The ups, the downs, the relationship with your partner and kids… the specifics of it may seem like ingredients for a niche indie picture or even worse, a “message” movie about tolerance, equal rights, and the evil liberal agenda, but it never even comes close to such things. Instead the movie is simply about the challenges of family life. Nic is a doctor who enjoys both her wine and her control streak a bit too much. Jules is the more relaxed and carefree half of the relationship who floats between “careers” with a mix of indifference and enthusiasm. Together they’ve raised their kids as well as any parent could which means there’s plenty of room for doubts and concerns. Joni has just graduated high school and is mere months away from heading off to college, and as nervous as she may be her parents are even more terrified. And then there’s Laser who seems well adjusted but may be exploring his sexuality in some unexpected ways. And by unexpected ways I mean with a ginger of course.

As wonderfully written and directed as the film may be the picture’s real power is in the acting. All five of the lead performers are giving some of the best work of their careers. Granted, that’s not saying much for Hutcherson, but even with a limited background he’s never seemed as natural as he does here. Wasikowska shines as the child on the cusp of adulthood torn between home and the outside world, and she manages more with a quivering lip then many of her peers do with their entire body. Ruffalo is almost always the most watchable and intriguing actor in any of his films and that trend doesn’t change here. His character is an inexcusable dick at times but you can’t help but want to forgive him. A lesser actor (with harder features and without his sad, puppy eyes) would have a hard time accomplishing the same.

Bening and Moore both give fantastic and believably real performances as a couple who love each other, warts and all, and can convey that long history together with little more than a glance. I joked about Moore above (no I didn’t), but she imbues Jules with such a goofy and effortless charm that you could easily see yourself falling into her smiling embrace. But as good as everyone else is the performance of note here belongs to Mrs Dick Tracy herself, Annette Bening. As the most authoritative adult of the three Nic is tasked as straight-man to the more loose and casual performances of Moore and Ruffalo and the childish behaviors of the kids. She never becomes unlikable though, and as her grip on things begins to crack it’s a slow tremble of emotion that begins to spill out. A certain dinner table scene is a masterclass in itself in the art of acting as Nic navigates some surprising revelations and comes out wounded and scarred on the other side.

Andrew O’Hehir in Salon:

By making a movie in which a pair of married lesbians are played by well-known hetero actresses Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, and in which one partner (Jules, played by Moore) has an affair with a straight man, Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg capitulate — in some people’s view — to a whole set of “Celluloid Closet”-type homophobic stereotypes, and possibly lend aid and comfort to the right-wing view of homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice.” Furthermore, Cholodenko doesn’t seem terribly concerned about it. Before our Sundance interview, I read her a few examples from the first wave of critical comments and she laughed them off: “Maybe those people need to take their pink megaphone somewhere else.”

Ultimately, this might not even rise to the level of a tempest in a teapot: Lesbian and gay viewers, along with everybody else who actually sees “The Kids Are All Right,” are likely to find it a sympathetic, honest and frequently hilarious film about the challenges of marriage, parenting and contemporary family life, with one highly topical twist. But if some queer-radical types object to the film on political or ideological grounds, there’s a sense in which they’re right to do so. This movie definitely isn’t aimed at them.

In other interviews, Cholodenko has joked that she’s more interested in drawing in straight male viewers than in placating every possible segment of lesbian opinion. That makes the film sound a lot more calculated and Hollywoodish than it is, but the point she’s making is that “The Kids Are All Right” has a dramatic agenda but no political agenda. It’s not attached to a set of talking points about gay marriage and sexual identity, it’s not advocating some revolutionary artistic or social paradigm and it’s not a seminar in LGBT self-esteem.

Jules and Nic (Bening’s workaholic doctor character) and their teenage kids and the Peter Pan man-boy who threatens to come between them (a scene-stealing Mark Ruffalo) are flawed, selfish, fascinating characters you’ll sometimes like and sometimes hate. This is one of the most compelling and rewarding portraits of a middle-class American marriage in cinema history, as well as one of the funniest. The fact that the people in this particular marriage are both women is important to the story, of course. But perhaps, Cholodenko suggests, it isn’t all that important to the universe.

Dan Gifford at Big Hollywood:

This film is essentially selling a lite version of the leftist utopian political fantasy of not needing men and rejecting male patriarchy.

And what does a hetero guy in Hollywood know about any of that? Please allow a brief digression to establish bona fides.

Del Martin, founder of the modern lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender–rights movement, was my great aunt. It was she and her life partner, Phyllis Lyon, who received California’s much publicized first same sex marriage license in San Francisco.

That outed, I will note that lesbianism, at least according to my aunt and many other other leaders who defined the movement, is a leftist political statement of female bonding against hunter-gatherer maleness that does not necessarily have anything to do with sex. In my aunt’s own words, a lesbian is “a woman whose primary erotic, psychological, emotional and social interest is in a member of her own sex, even though that interest may not be overtly expressed [sexually].”

That’s what comes through in Moore’s Jules character since she so hungrily embraces heterosexual sex, the thought of which apparently disgusts her parther, Nic. Pure sex aside,  lesbian feminists have always told me that the object of women’s politicized sexual links is to overthrow the patriarchal order and replace it with a feminist culture. “Just as sexism is the source of all our other oppressions, maleness is the source of sexism,” according to a statement from the Dyke Collective. Implicit in that rant is a rejection of males as fathers that provide anything positive to the raising of children.

Can that be true?

A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found “… children in lesbian homes scored higher than kids in straight families on some psychological measures of self-esteem and confidence, did better academically and were less likely to have behavioral problems, such as rule breaking and aggression.”

Maybe the kids are all right.

But critics say that considering this research was “funded by several lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocacy groups, such as the Gill Foundation and the Lesbian Health Fund from the Gay Lesbian Medical Association“  plus the obvious fact that the political left dominates all media, even the scientific media, whatta ya ’spect?

So, maybe the kids aren’t all right.

Irin Carmon at Jezebel:

The action happens, so to speak, when the couple’s children track down the sperm donor that is their biological father — and apparently Julianne Moore has an affair with him. (In the trailer, this looks like chaste kissing.) With this twist, writes O’Hehir, “Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg capitulate — in some people’s view — to a whole set of ‘Celluloid Closet’-type homophobic stereotypes, and possibly lend aid and comfort to the right-wing view of homosexuality as a ‘lifestyle choice.'” That, at least, appears to have been the complaints of some of Salon’s commenters — not a famously enlightened bunch, alas, but an interesting claim nonetheless.

In other words, does every Hollywood movie involving a lesbian have to suggest she really needs cock?

As a San Francisco Bay Guardian interviewer put it to Cholodenko, “We don’t see a lot of queer characters on screen, and so when we do, many want them to be perfect: the queer voice, the lesbian, the gay man. And when they step outside those boundaries, suddenly it becomes an issue, politically.”

Cholodenko replied that she (also a lesbian mother) identified strongly with the film and felt that it was true to her, and also that she didn’t find the boundaries between straight and gay to be so rigid. She went on,

I feel like, it’s kind of an interesting intermingling of straight and gay. I felt like, if I really want this to be a mainstream film, that’s good. This is really inclusive of gay and straight, and I like that. I like that personally and I like that for this film. I was much more interested in reaching out to the male population than I was concerned about alienating a sector of the lesbian population.

In other words, this was explicitly, at least in part, a capitulation to having more people identify with the story — but in a way that felt narratively true to Cholodenko, at least by her own account. If the film does succeed with “mainstream” (giant scare quotes around that one) audiences, then maybe the next time won’t be such a hard sell. And it won’t have to stand in as the “perfect” representation of a given group, not being the only one.

Judy Berman at Flavorwire:

The greatest strength of co-writer and director Lisa Cholodenko’s (who, it’s worth noting is a lesbian parent) script, as well as Julianne Moore and Annette Bening’s pitch-perfect portrayals of the couple in question, is that it paints its lead characters as very specific, likable but fallible people. Nic (Bening) is a resolutely Type A OB-GYN with strict rules for the kids, a tendency to be called away to work at just the wrong time, and a nasty habit of drinking too much to take the edge off of stressful situations. Jules (Moore) isn’t quite her opposite so much as her counterpart: a sort of free spirit with a lighter touch who’s never exactly managed to launch a successful career. They argue, like all couples do, but the love and deep attachment between them is always palpable. Oh, and they watch guy-on-guy gay porn together while they get it on. In a spectacularly awkward clip that is nonetheless true to the characters, Jules explains to their 15-year-old son that human desire is a strange and unpredictable (not to mention inexplicable) thing.

It’s easy to understand why oppressed groups can be so protective of the way they are portrayed in media. Movies like The Kids Are All Right, which may be rocketed to mainstream success on the strength of its two A-list stars (and equally strong supporting performances by Mark Ruffalo and Mia Wasikowska), might have a chance at getting Middle America to empathize with a lesbian-led family. But that shouldn’t mean Bening and Moore’s two moms should have to be perfect. Any film with flawless main characters is bound to be a forced, boring one more concerned with being politically correct than telling a powerful story.

The Kids Are All Right plants the viewer right in the center of this family in flux’s most difficult summer. By creating characters we feel we know, not in spite but because of their shortcomings, Cholodenko and her stars will undoubtedly win over viewers and rise above stereotypes.

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Filed under Gay Marriage, LGBT, Movies

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