This is a guest review from Megan Kearns.
I was so excited to see The Kids Are All Right. I mean a film with not one, but two amazing female leads as well as a family headed by lesbian parents?? The feminist in me says sign me up! While it exuded potential, I wasn’t so excited after watching the film.
The Kids Are All Right, directed and co-written by Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon, High Art) centers on Annette Bening (Nic) and Julianne Moore (Jules), a loving married lesbian couple in California who are parents to daughter Joni and son Laser. Joni is a brilliant student about to embark on college; Laser is a confused teen experimenting with drugs and yearning for a male role model. Laser begs Joni, as she’s 18, to contact their “father,” as both their mothers underwent artificial insemination, Mark Ruffalo (Paul) who happens to be the sperm donor for both kids. When Joni and Laser meet Paul, they’re reticent to tell their mothers. Yet they eventually do all meet. While Jules and Joni are pleased to connect with him, Laser feels ambivalence towards him and Nic worries Paul’s arrival will drive a wedge between her and her family. Complications ensue as Paul becomes ever more entwined in each of their lives.
This slow-paced, meandering film possesses some positive traits. The performances, particularly by Bening and Ruffalo, are where the film shines. Bening radiates as the rigid and controlling career woman who feels her world spinning out of control. There’s a beautiful scene, one of my faves in the film, in which the background sounds of a dinner party fade to a muffled din as she sits, alone in her pain. Bening perfectly conveys Nic’s frustrations and emotions. Moore, whom I adore for her chameleon ability to seamlessly meld into a character (except her horrendous Boston accent on 30 Rock), while far from her best performance, does a great job as the flighty free spirit who’s never truly found her calling in life. Josh Hutcherson who plays Laser is annoying; although teens often are so perhaps he does succeed! Mia Wasikowska as Joni gives a solid performance as the teen yearning for freedom. Ruffalo is fantastic as Paul, the well-intentioned yet fuck-up hipster. He’s a pathetic character yet oozes charm in every scene, as he strives to find a meaningful connection. But it’s Nic and Jules’ tender yet struggling relationship, that elicits the most fascination. With its mix of bickering and affection, it feels so real. Just as any couple has problems, so do they. Jules feels she’s not desired anymore and Nic feels her family slipping through her grasp.
The dialogue is sharp and witty yet problematic. For what I had hoped would be a feminist film, the script was littered with assloads of slut-shaming, whore-calling and homophobic F-word dropping. And while these terms do get tossed around in our society, no repercussions or backlash existed in the film; as if no social commentary was being made. Granted, not every film has to make some grandiose statement. Yet I expected better here, particularly as it was directed and co-written by a woman. Luckily, it does pass the Bechdel Test as Nic and Jules often talk to each other about their marriage or about their children.
Despite the great performances and (mostly) great dialogue, the film was mired with too many problems…particularly its plot. If you’ve seen The Kids Are All Right or read about it, you probably know what I’m talking about: the affair. One of the women enters into an affair…with Paul. Yep, a lesbian has an affair with a man. But not just any man…her sperm donor!
As someone who doesn’t consider themselves straight (but not a lesbian either), I truly believe in the fluidity of gender and sexuality. I don’t believe in gender binaries, so I don’t feel that a self-professed lesbian sleeping with a man means she’s either/or: either a lesbian or straight. Nor do I think it necessarily makes her bisexual. But why oh christ why did a man have to be involved?? As it is, according to the Women’s Media Center, men comprise more than 70% of the speaking roles in films. And while we’re starting to see gay men and couples in films and on TV shows, it’s even rarer to see lesbians (as well as bisexual and transgender).
So it pissed me off that a lesbian couple, shown with so much tenderness and depth, had to have their lives invaded by a man. Even the porn film Nic and Jules watch during a sex scene is of two gay men. It’s almost as if Cholodenko is saying all women crave a penis! Perhaps I wouldn’t be so hard on the film if there were more movies made about lesbians. But as this is one of the few films to show a lesbian marriage, I worry that people will judge lesbian relationships based on how they’re depicted here.
Inspiration for the film came loosely from Cholodenko's life, who came out as a lesbian when she was 16 years old. As an adult, many of her lesbian friends were having babies via sperm donors. When Cholodenko and her wife decided to have a baby, they too sought a sperm donor. Interestingly, co-writer Stuart Blumberg happened to donate sperm in college. These two circumstances coalesced, forming the foundation for the film. Cholodenko also infused the script with anecdotes from her own life, such as the "numb tongue" story of how Jules and Nic meet in the film.
"'That Nic and Jules are a lesbian couple is important to the movie thematically because they are raising a family in an unconventional setting and are more anxious than some parents about how having two moms will affect the mental health of their children. But it could have been the same thing with a divorced couple,' she says. 'I always thought we were making a movie about a family, and the threat to the wholeness of the family. It was not about politics. If there was anything calculated, it was how do we make this movie universal — how do we make this a story about a family?'"
Critics have lauded the film for its transcendence from an LGBTQ family into a universal tale about modern families. And that’s one of the components I applaud; that Cholodenko’s message is not about a lesbian family, but of a family, period. Yet I can’t escape the feeling of unease, that critics glossing over the unique experiences and challenges that LGBTQ parents face feels like a slap in the face at worst and negligent at best.
While critics and many movie-goers loved The Kids Are All Right, the film infuriated many lesbians due to the affair. And I can't blame them, it pissed me off too. Sheila Lambert at the Examiner writes,
"'Lesbians love it when a married woman has an affair with another woman on film, which is perceived as moving toward authenticity, but we’re not happy seeing a woman in a same-sex marriage have an affair with a man, which to them represents a regression. And raises concerns about whether it adds fuel to the notion that sexual orientation can be changed from gay to straight. Sitting in the audience, I found myself feeling concerned about that as well…'"
Professor Joan Garry at Huffington Post was one of the lesbians angered by the film's plot. She astutely argues,
"'It boils down to this: I'm upset because I believe the takeaway from this film will be that lesbians and the families they create need men to be complete.'"
Our patriarchal society continually tells women that they need a man; that their lives aren’t whole or fulfilled without one. But they don’t. Despite the film’s misguided plot, the crux of the film resides in the strength of Nic and Jules’ relationship and their love for their kids. My fave scene and quote in the film is when Nic and Jules attempt to explain to their kids why families fight. Jules says,
"'Your mom and I are in hell right now and the bottom line is marriage is hard. It’s really fucking hard. Just two people slogging through the shit, year after year, getting older, changing. It's a fucking marathon, okay? So, sometimes, you know, you're together for so long, that you just... You stop seeing the other person. You just see weird projections of your own junk. Instead of talking to each other, you go off the rails and act grubby and make stupid choices, which is what I did. And I feel sick about it because I love you guys, and your mom, and that’s the truth. And sometimes you hurt the ones you love the most, and I don’t know why. You know if I read more Russian novels, then...Anyway…I just wanted to say how sorry I am for what I did. I hope you’ll forgive me eventually…'"
Raw and real; it felt as if Annette Bening and Julianne Moore were a real couple fighting to hold onto their family. Usually, you see a film with two lesbians in an affair for men’s titillation, rarely to convey a loving, monogamous relationship. Nic and Jules share a flawed yet devoted marriage, evocative of relationships in real-life. There was simply no need to bring a man into the picture. I wish the film had retained its focus on the couple and their family. It’s such a rarity that we see films featuring lesbian couples let alone two female leads that I had high hopes for, expecting it to be empowering. Sadly, the undercurrent of misogynistic language and male-centrism taints Cholodenko’s potentially beautiful story.
Megan Kearns is a blogger, freelance writer and activist. A feminist vegan, Megan blogs at The Opinioness of the World. She earned her B.A. in Anthropology and Sociology and a Graduate Certificate in Women and Politics and Public Policy. She lives in Boston.