Monday, November 22, 2010
The Kids Aren't The Issue
Last night's movie: Lisa Cholodenko's 2009 romantic dramedy The Kids Are All Right.
Set somewhere in California (presumably around LA, though it doesn't matter), The Kids Are All Right tells of a brother and sister--Joni and Laser, played by Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson--who decide to contact the man whose sperm donation was responsible for their coming into the world. The mothers, in this case, are Nic and Jules (played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), a lesbian couple who have been together for 20 years and who used the same sperm donation to each get pregnant, so the two kids are not just siblings in practice but also half-siblings genetically.
Nic and Jules are a quintessential modern liberated couple, seemingly living without all the Bible Belt shackles which weigh we Midwesterners down, and their kids are correspondingly normal--reasonably healthy and happy and free of most baggage; they have a good life. But the introduction of the sperm donor / father (Paul, played by Mark Ruffalo) into the comfortable domestic scene unexpectedly puts everything in the blender. The kids' desire to know the man who contributed genetic material--and nothing else--to the family puts Nic and Jules in an insecure spot, seemingly questioning the very legitimacy of their bond (a bond, it goes without saying, which some in society are already eager to doubt the legitimacy of) and forcing them to question whether their definition of family is in fact encompassing enough. The kids mean no malice, of course, but when Paul turns out to be likeable and *gasp* a father figure, it's a source of confusion and turmoil for everyone, Paul included. When both moms turn out to like him as well it seems like every anchor in life threatens to give way.
It's a truism I suppose that there are only so many stories in the world and the devil is in the myriad variants and details. And it's hard to know how to categorize this movie as it takes you on quite an emotional tour in two hours, without being too heavy in any particular. But we're faced with a bunch of really likeable people who are forced to work through an unusual but comprehensible dilemma, a dilemma which stems not from anyone being especially good or bad--there are no bad guys here--but from the messy edges of humanity itself, the messy boundaries of sexuality and love and lust and family bonds and friendship. And Cholodenko's script and direction give us such realism that I found myself pulling for everybody, willing all of them to end up via their own paths in the same sunny place even if I could see that this is unlikely or even impossible.
Bening and Moore are letter perfect as the long-married couple who love their children absolutely and have developed the telepathy and shorthand of all long-term couples. Ruffalo's Paul is a smart, attractive guy who sees in this family a glimpse of all he has bypassed for so many years. The kids can see in him not just an interesting and caring human being, but also a gender role to which they have perhaps not had close exposure. This doesn't need to play as a great tragedy, and for the most part it doesn't / isn't. There is love aplenty in the family from all quarters, and as I've said everyone seems about as healthy and happy and fulfilled as we humans get in this life. But it's the germ which forces everyone--including us--to ask questions.
The film led me to wonder about sexuality, though maybe not exactly in the way intended. It has never seemed in any way dubious to me that same-sex couples could be great parents, and indeed maybe better parents than heterosexual couples in many cases, so that a portrayal of a functional, happy two-mom family was neither surprising nor even particularly novel to me. But in that same breath I had to ask myself how many people would find it shocking or surprising.
There is a near-mainstream element (he says, taking out his patented StereoTyper 2000™) of female-female sexuality in our culture that places it in a different category for many people than male-male sexuality. And I found myself wondering how much more challenging the film would be for a wide audience if the gay family were two men, especially when their sexuality, however mild, was displayed on screen. I cannot speak for any woman, of course, but my own sense is that being sexual with a person of your own sex is not as deeply challenging to one's sense of femininity / masculinity for women as it is for men. *Caution: spoiler ahead!* As a case in point, I think of what a different film it would have been if the man from a straight couple found himself unexpectedly going to bed with another man and thus putting his very family at risk. Could that film ever be set as something mostly comedic? Or would it be seen as a dark, loss-of-self film, a disaster? A lesbian woman who sleeps with a man poses not the slightest challenge to anyone's thinking.
Anyway, lots of questions for which I have no answers. But I loved the film considerably more than I expected, maybe because of those questions. The film has a slightly low budget feel (in a good way), and the soundtrack feels at times like someone just grabbed the audio tracks from Gray's Anatomy. But the characters are so real and their dilemmas so touching and human that I wanted to get to know each of them and I found myself pulling for the best possible outcome for all.
And that seems like a recipe for a successful film.