Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Kids Are All Right (Mandalay Vision, Antidote Films, Focus Features, Universal, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Kids Are All Right, directed and co-written (with Stuart Blumberg) by Lisa Cholodenko, whom I remembered from a few years ago as the writer-director of the marvelous film Laurel Canyon. The buzz around this film had been strong and the premise is certainly provocative: a long-term Lesbian couple, Nicole a.k.a. “Nic” (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), have two teenage children, 18-year-old daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and 15-year-old son Laser (Josh Hutcherson), but their own lives together — especially their sex lives — have become routine and boring. The kids are biologically their own — Joni is Nic’s daughter and Laser is Jules’s son — but they were both fathered by a sperm donor, and as the film begin Joni stumbles on the file her mothers had kept on the donation and calls the sperm bank.

She learns that both she and Laser have the same biological father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a restaurateur (he owns a hole-in-the-wall gourmet place called WYSIWYG — an old computer-world acronym for “What you see is what you get” in the era, the 1980’s, when graphic user interfaces were still unusual, that probably sails over the heads of younger audience members) and organic farmer. Though Nic and Jules (the fact that both her female leads have “masculine” names is itself an indication of Cholodenko’s agenda, bending not only straight stereotypes of how Queer people live but Queer people’s own stereotypes about who we are and why) picked Paul as their donor at least partly because he was going to college and studying international relations, they learn once Joni and Laser track him down that he dropped out relatively quickly and has lived his adult life in a sort of suspended adolescence, burning through a little black book and having affairs with a lot of women — including his current flame, Tanya (Yaya DaCosta), a hot African-American who works as his assistant at the restaurant and who’s a good deal more serious about him than he is about her.

It’s a typical Cholodenko ironic joke that Nic and Jules are Lesbians who have lived like a straight couple (down to Nic, a nurse, seeing herself as the breadwinner of the family and looking askance at Jules’ attempts to forge a career of her own — at one point Jules tells Nic, “You just wanted a wife!”) while Paul is a straight man who’s lived like a Gay man, maintaining a boyish mien (Ruffalo’s loose posture and ability to project his character’s self-centeredness is an acting triumph, especially the way he acts “boyish” while still convincing us the character is 38 years old — he was actually 42 when he shot the film! — and making it believable that so many women in the movie find him irresistible) and avoiding anything that smacks of marriage, family or adult responsibility (though he has been able to make his business at least a small-scale success). Jules’ latest attempt at a career is landscape gardening, and for reasons Cholodenko and Blumberg powerfully hint at without making explicit — to help her out financially? To become part of the family that, after all, includes his only biological progeny? To get into Jules’s pants? All of the above? — Paul hires her to do his garden as her first project.

Proximity works its magic and Paul and Jules end up in bed together, pounding away at each other (there are a lot of sex scenes in movies today, but Ruffalo actually manages to act during one; his depiction of sex is full of furious energy and rapid-fire fucking that projects the character he’s been given, a man for whom sex is a burst of physical intensity rather than anything that seals or is part of an emotional commitment). Paul actually ends up more or less falling in love with Jules, seeing in her a way to the emotional stability and family orientation that’s the biggest single lack in his own life — and she begs off with the words, “I’m married,” suggesting that the situation wouldn’t be any less (or more) complicated if the spouse she was cheating on with Paul were a man. Out of this bizarre mixture of motives that reflects the complexity of real life rather than the neat little packages in which most movies tie up human emotions and behaviors, Paul invites Nic, Jules and the kids to his home for dinner — and Nic finds Jules’s hair in the bathroom and in Paul’s bedroom and catches on to the affair. Then she returns to the dinner table and, in yet another one of the ironies in which Cholodenko’s works abound, Paul offers a toast to “an unconventional family” just as the unconventional family is coming apart for the most conventional reasons conceivable: jealousy, ennui and empty-nest syndrome (the film takes place at the end of summer, just as Joni is about to go off to college).

The title is an ironic evocation of the mid-1960’s Who song “The Kids Are Alright” [sic — I was taught in grammar school that the neologism “alright” was never all right] that indicates the kids might be all right but their parents aren’t, and the film is full of ironies — including the subplot involving Laser’s (we’re told that Nic and Jules named their daughter after Joni Mitchell — and indeed there’s an hilarious scene where they and the others at Paul’s dinner table try to make it through an amateur sing of one of Mitchell’s convoluted lyrics — but we’re never told why their son is called that) best friend Clay (Eddie Hassell), whom at first Nic and Jules think might be Laser’s Gay boyfriend but in fact is a bit of a homophobe, not enough of one to shun a friend whose parents are both female but enough of one to keep calling him a “fag” — they tell Laser they don’t mind him hanging around a boy or even having sex with him; they just don’t like Clay and don’t think he’s good enough for their son. As with Laurel Canyon, the moral of The Kids Are All Right is that it’s precisely the people who think they’re the most unconventional who are in fact the most conventional — the “counterculture” is actually far less “counter” than its members like to think it is.

I’d been a bit worried about this movie because the situation of the long-term Lesbian falling in love (or at least lust) with a man could be played homophobically — “There’s nothing wrong with her that a good stiff cock up her cunt wouldn’t cure” — the way it was in D. H. Lawrence’s similarly plotted The Fox — but Cholodenko, who got taken to task for this movie by an message board poster who said it was shameful that a real-life Lesbian (her photos on the imdb site suggest that she based Annette Bening’s makeup for the role on her own appearance) would make such a homophobic movie — but I like films that depict sexual orientation in some of its real-life complexity and show that people don’t neatly fit into boxes labeled “straight,” “Gay,” “Lesbian” and “Bisexual” even though a lot of times they like to pretend that they do. (As many qualms as I had about Brokeback Mountain, that was one of the things I thought did work about it: the fact that Ennis and Jack didn’t fit any a priori ideas about sexual orientation — they weren’t straight, they weren’t Gay and they weren’t really Bi, either, though Jack did seem the more “Gay” of the two — and not just because he was the bottom in the sex scenes — just as Nic seems the more “Lesbian” of the two women here.)

There’s even the rather quirky fact that in order to excite themselves sexually, Nic and Jules watch, of all things, Gay male porn (courtesy Colt Studios, which gets an acknowledgment in the credits for providing the clips seen in the film) — indicating that for all their love of each other and long-term commitment to their relationship, both of them are still excited by the idea of a penis even if they can live (and fuck) well enough without the real thing. I noticed I liked The Kids Are All Right better than Charles did — that was true of Laurel Canyon as well — and what I liked about it was precisely its transgressive quality, its refusal to fit its characterizations into stereotypical molds of sexual orientation, and it ends as it should end — with Nic and Jules reconciling and getting ready to address the next phase of their lives, now that Joni has left the nest and Laser will soon follow — not because Cholodenko and Blumberg are making some self-consciously “liberal” point about the legitimacy of Lesbian relationships but because they’ve drawn these characters as two people (not two women, or two Lesbians, but two people) who are far better off together than they would be apart.