Monday, August 30, 2010

The Kids Are All Right: Same-Sex Family Drama

The problem with most gay and lesbian themed movies is generally that this is an underserved genre: small budgets, novice actors, and undeveloped scripts focused on immature characters give most of these films the feeling of high-school drama, and even if they have a certain kind of appeal for their audience, they feel largely uninspired as film form.

The Kids Are All Right, the new movie about a same-sex couple and their two teenage kids, strives valiantly to rise above the limitations of its genre. With a fine ear for family dialogue and a stellar cast at the helm (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as the couple, and Mark Ruffalo as the male interloper who is the unwanted sperm donor for the two kids), the movie feels like something more: like a keenly felt exploration of adult, family dynamics, no matter what the orientation of the parents.

Yet it’s sometimes hard to tell if it’s writer / director Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon / "The L World") who’s creating the fine moments in the film, or the actors. The story wants to go in a direction that feels constrained and false, suggesting that Ruffalo (who plays Paul in the film, a restaurateur and motorcycle-driving Zen-spouting Californian) really is an interloper and half-loser who would rather take over this family than start his own. Or that Bening’s Nic is inattentive and domineering and Moore’s Jules is aimless and polymorphous, leading them to a family argument that is a culmination of the unhappiness in their relationship. Yet the actors all bring out a humor and humanity in the characters that make them more than their roles in the film; they feel like fully realized human beings, interesting if flawed people who are worthy of our time and each other’s.

At the same time, there is definitely a novice quality to the film’s direction and editing, especially in the first act. Scenes that hang a second too long or dialogue delivered with flat inflection at times gives the film a Todd Haynes’ “surfacy” tone, as if we’ve stumbled into stinted parody, when what the director is really after is a casual authenticity. I’m afraid this may confuse many in the audience into taking the characters and their desires less seriously than they deserve.

Where the movie shines is when it’s delivering its unique, quirky insights, such as when Jules tries to explain to her fifteen year old son, who’s accidentally found their hidden sex tape, why the two women enjoy watching gay male porn when having sex. She gets tumbled up trying to explain the difference between inside and outside erogeny, and the moment feels both authentic and unique, making us realize just how rare it is not only to see a female-headed household on film, but any depiction of a real adult relationship or the genuine travails of child-rearing.

Leading what they think is a normal gay, middle-class life, the happy same-sex household gets distracted from their normal issues when the children decide they want to find their sperm donor. Played with charming roguishness by Ruffalo, Paul is both an adult child and a successful entrepreneur (I love his home, with their expansive gardens ripe for planting). He immediately takes a shine to the kids, and they to him, and slowly insinuates himself into the family. Again, the way that Paul falls in love with his newly found progeny, and they with him, endears us both to the characters and their dilemma.

All of this is supremely weighty and interesting. It’s a shame, then, that the movie feels it needs to create artificial drama by instigating an affair between Jules and sperm donor Paul. It isn’t just that sex with a man is politically incorrect – though one suspects that Cholodenko is testing the audience a bit with this. It’s that the affair looms up and crushes all the gentle insights that have come before. For one, it feels false, a plot development coming from the writer than more authentically from the characters, who after raising two find children, one hopes is smarter than this. For another, the false drama of the affair crushes the types of family insights we’d gotten before, and the trajectories of the son and daughter, never mind the two women, are cut short. Instead of stock lesbian accusations that their sperm donor is an interloper, we should be seeing how the son has resolved his self-esteem issues with his violent (and possibly secretly gay) friend; how the daughter has gotten out from under her mothers’ thumbs; how the two women will navigate their relationship now that their daughter is leaving home.

We don’t get to see any of that, and it’s a bit frustrating that the movie has chosen to focus on the sperm donor “issue” instead of the genuine family dynamics. I left the movie feeling that Paul had gotten the short end of the deal. He actually seemed to make a good father, and there was no reason the movie couldn’t have found a way to integrate him into the family (as Dennis Lim has pointed out in the NY Times, as many gay families have done with a biological parent). Instead, the movie seems to go out of its way to justify excluding him, and one can’t help but feel it’s succumbed a bit to ideology over good writing.

Just like an earlier generation of gay movies, then, this one similarly feels like it has the weight of representation on its shoulders, and perhaps in attempting to deal with all the “hot button” issues that a lesbian couple raising children face, it could have benefited by allowing itself to be simply quirky and true. Just as the parents feel pressure to make sure their kids are perfect, the filmmaker seems to feel pressure to deal head-on with core issues of same-sex child-rearing. Yet out of the corners of this film peaks some unexpected characters and discovered joy. That’s where its strength as a film lies; not in its depiction of a key gay / lesbian issue, but in its depiction of a family.

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