Universal // 2010 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski (Retired) // November 15th, 2010
"He's not a father; he's our sperm donor." -- Nic
You know what the thing is about lesbian movies? They're usually kind of cringingly terrible. As a lesbian and a movie buff, I've picked through the rubble of this genre pretty thoroughly and found only a few films I can unequivocally say that I like: the admittedly dreary High Art, the German historical film Aimee & Jaguar, maybe one or two others. But this year a bright, shiny gem of a movie emerges from that rubble: The Kids Are All Right, directed by lesbian filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko, who also gave us High Art. It's about time.
Unrelated to its gay content, TKAAR is an all-around strong film, with a snappy script, fantastic actors, and a nicely understated style. Its more impressive accomplishment, though, and the key to its success is the way it finds that perfect balance between being a lesbian movie and being a regular ol' family dramedy. With plenty of "universal" themes about marriage and parenting but also some truly gay-specific situations, Cholodenko's film sets itself up to draw everybody in.
Joni (Mia Wasikowska, Alice in Wonderland) is getting ready to depart from her comfy, upper-class L.A. family for her first year of college. Each birthed by one of their lesbian moms, she and her brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson, Bridge to Terabithia) have no idea whose sperm they're made of -- until Joni turns eighteen and has a chance to find out.
They track said sperm to its source (the process is way less gross than I've made it sound) and meet Paul (Mark Ruffalo, Zodiac), a scruffy and good-looking restaurateur who spends his days getting flirted with by his 20-something female employees. The kids' secret rendezvous with Paul gets discovered, and Joni indicates to her moms that she wants Paul to be a part of her life. The uptight perfectionist mom, Nic (Annette Bening, The Grifters), is not a fan of this new development, and even the flighty laid-back mom, Jules (Julianne Moore, A Single Man), is thrown by the kids' news. Indeed, Paul's arrival in the family's life ends up exposing some serious cracks in their seemingly stable foundation.
Call it living in a California bubble or call it a sign of the times, but the write-up on the back of the case for The Kids Are All Right starts out by describing Nic and Jules as "your average suburban couple raising their two teens." It's hard to imagine a lesbian couple being described this way in a mainstream movie even ten years ago. Perhaps it reads so smoothly because TKAAR is, in many ways, one of those beloved "gay people are just like you" movies. The refreshing part is that in this framing Cholodenko has dispensed with the hysteria among queer viewers for "positive images" of ourselves on screen (a hysteria that was raging particularly hard in the '90s and early 2000s, if memory serves). In this film, you see, gay people are just like you...and "you" are kind of messed up. "You" have grown frustrated with your spouse, even if you still joke around and call each other pet names. "You" don't have the exciting sex life you once did. "You" fear that your kids are drifting away from you. And "you" perhaps have an alcohol problem or a strong desire to get into somebody else's extramarital pants. Even as the film celebrates and supports gay marriage and gay families in a time when they are politically under siege in our nation, it also takes a clear-eyed view of the problems inherent in the institutions of marriage and the family.
Creating a nice symmetry between the aforementioned universality and a gay specificity, the screenplay makes Paul-the-sperm-donor the catalyst that really sets off the family's slumbering issues and resentments. Though it is not an exclusively lesbian scenario, the sudden appearance of a biological parent to one's kids whom one has never met is certainly not a situation most folks can directly relate to. The strangeness of this predicament is expressed well in a simple interaction between Jules and Paul. She stares at him, a little spooked and a little sad, and explains that she can see her kids' expressions in his face. If the moms seem a little harsh and don't welcome Paul with open arms right away, perhaps it's because they're in that distinctively gay scenario of reproductive drama. Scanning down the ingredient list for making a baby, gay couples never have a fully stocked pantry. With whatever method they choose to address that situation -- sperm donation and surrogates, adoption, foster care, and so on -- they inevitably end up with a kid who has a biological parent or parents out there somewhere, perhaps just waiting to crawl out of the woodwork and lay some claims to that kid. It doesn't have to be this sinister, of course, and sometimes in TKAAR you see a glimpse of how things might have gone differently. At a dinner with the moms and the kids, Paul raises a glass to "an unconventional family." It would be a sweet moment if we didn't already know, at this point in the movie, that it's become dysfunctional in addition to being unconventional.
Whether they seem just like you or wholly different, the strength of the characters in TKAAR is that the script and actors make them feel fully real and lived-in (especially impressive on a film that was shot in under a month). Though they all shine, Bening's work does so perhaps most brightly. Nic is a tough character to make likeable and Bening doesn't stress too much about that; instead, she focuses on building up her sense of anxiety and eventually a crash of betrayal. She is fully convincing as a soft butch, high-achieving lesbian mom who doesn't quite understand why her family can't be as on-the-ball as she is. Moore balances Nic out with Jules' mellowness, which eventually breeds recklessness and impulsivity. Throughout, though, she manages to maintain a sense of Jules as a caring and perceptive person who just doesn't quite know how to fix her marriage. Wasikowska and Hutcherson take on the teenager roles admirably, keeping them fully sympathetic even when the characters make the unavoidable mistakes that we all do as teenagers. Indeed, one of the most clear political stances of the film rests with these two and with its title: these kids of gay parents are all right, even though gay parents in this case are just as imperfect as straight ones.
Then there's Paul. It's hard to give Mark Ruffalo the praise he deserves for this performance without making it seem like a simultaneous insult. "Ruffalo is pitch-perfect as a self-absorbed hipster asshole" or "In Ruffalo's expressions, you can really see how smugly impressed with himself Paul is." This is the kind of fellow who says "right on" a lot, always seems to have some raw and organic vegetable in his hand that he's eating messily, and owns a pretentious local-organic restaurant called Wysiwyg. To top things off, he rides a vintage motorcycle and is undeniably handsome. Ruffalo as Paul is the perfect interloper for this family: someone the moms can fear for his visible coolness, his offhand remarks about college being a waste of time, and the general potential he has for drawing the kids in. What makes the story work is that even if Paul seems like a bit of an ass, he's not portrayed as a villain. He really seems to care about Joni and Laser and wants to be involved in their lives. Still, I did feel a real catharsis when Nic finally bursts and goes on a rant about the type of guy Paul is, ending with "If I hear one more person say that they love heirloom tomatoes, I'm going to fucking kill myself."
That line brings up the utterly refreshing comedy of TKAAR. Cholodenko and her co-writer Stuart Blumberg infusing this drama with just enough humor pitched at just the right level. Showcasing the type of estrogen-saturated household the kids are living in (though not really: both moms have a touch of the tomboy about them), Nic and Jules have a great interaction with Laser in the first family dinner scene when they ask him about a friend they disapprove of:
Jules [taking Laser's hand and looking him in the eye]: "What do you
get from your relationship with Clay?"
Nic: "We just feel like he's a little untended."
Jules: "Do you think he's the kind of person who'll help you grow?"
A moment later, Laser coins a hilarious and useful term: as Jules holds his arm and absent-mindedly strokes her thumb back and forth in concern, he points out, "Mom, you're windshield wiping." The moms' misreading of Laser's friendship with Clay also results in a lot of humor, especially when Jules finds the two boys watching porn they found in the moms' drawer. The boys assumed it would be lesbian porn, and become increasingly confused as the beefy men on screen start giving each other blow jobs. This incident results in a very funny and well-written conversation about why some lesbians like gay male porn (and they do).
Universal gives TKAAR a fine presentation on Blu-ray, but it's honestly not a movie that benefits much at all from the enhanced audiovisuals. The appearance is slightly grainy, with a color palette that isn't too bright, and ultimately the film is a character study and not an a/v-centric story (though the look of the film is well-done and the soundtrack is pretty great). You can safely pick this one up on DVD and miss very little. For extras, there are a couple of very short featurettes and a commentary track. "Journey to Forming a Family (5 minutes) and "Making-Of" (3 minutes) have your standard mix of clips from the film, interviews with cast and crew, and a couple of behind-the-scenes shots. The highlight is a somewhat bemused Cholodenko noting that "it's kind of a family values movie." "The Writer's Process" (3 minutes) has Cholodenko and Blumberg talking about their collaboration as not unlike a marriage, with plenty of rough patches. The commentary track features just Cholodenko, and though she has lots to share I think it would have been stronger if one or both of the leading ladies could have joined her. Cholodenko just has a very low-key, calm manner that after a while listening gets a bit tedious -- especially when you realize that she's been talking about the film as a comedy but has not laughed once (that I noticed) in the past hour and forty-five minutes. Still, it's illuminating to hear about her writing and casting process and surprising how much she admits to putting her own life into the film: she was just about to have a sperm-donor baby with her partner when she began writing, Moore based Jules partly on her, Jules wears Cholodenko's vintage T-shirts, Cholodenko lent Moore a necklace she gave her partner to wear as Jules, and so on. Call me crazy, but I'm not sure I'd want people thinking this movie was based much on my life. Which brings me to one other point: as a partnered lesbian in my 20s, there is a sense in which I watch TKAAR as a bit of a horror movie, with a relationship I wouldn't want mine to turn into. Here's hoping that as much as "gay people are just like you," these gay people aren't just like me!
If you check out Rotten Tomatoes, you'd think that TKAAR was a universally beloved release, and that would be pretty close to the truth. But guess who seemed to hate this movie with a fiery vengeance? A bunch of queer and queer-friendly academics. They railed against its homonormativity, its defense of the nuclear family against an outsider, its lack of vision in not creating another type of queerer family in the end, and its vaguely icky-feeling treatment of race (this last point is one I agree with). As a queer academic myself, I read these critiques and couldn't help but think that some of these folks couldn't see the forest for the trees. Maybe they haven't toured that rubble of lesbian movies that I mentioned earlier, or maybe they don't care to recognize that not every gay movie can be about every kind of gay person, and that many gay people want (*gasp!*) a monogamous long-term relationship. While I think it's fine and dandy to think about what TKAAR could have been and isn't, I also think it is naive and silly to resent a semi-mainstream lesbian film that portrays some semi-mainstream lesbians. And for Pete's sake, we do see the lesbians watching gay male porn and using vibrators! So it's not like this is Leave It to Beaver.
As much as I enjoyed the release of Brokeback Mountain in 2005, I felt a little sad that we queer ladies didn't have our own big gay release -- the kind that would play outside of art house theaters, that would generate Oscar buzz, and that our straight families and friends would even go see. Though The Kids Are All Right doesn't have the same epic sweep as Brokeback, it did become a highly-praised mainstream movie that probably will pick up an Oscar nomination or two. For a movie-loving lesbian like me who spent my post-coming-out years consuming terrible films about my identity group, it's fantastic to finally have a big-deal good film to talk about.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site