Friday, July 30, 2010

The Kids are All Right

Annette Bening and Julianne Moore (photo, Suzanne Tenner)

In addition to being the best movie about lesbians I’ve seen in a long time, The Kids are All Right is a beautifully written and filmed, evocative, deeply funny, and deeply felt story about relationships in general. To say the film is about a couple who “happen to be lesbians” would completely miss the point, even though part of what makes it notable is that the leading couple’s sexuality is so completely taken for granted.

But director/co-writer (with Stuart Blumberg) Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon), for whom the story is apparently in part inspired by her own autobiography, understands that in 2010, being a lesbian family still requires work, gumption, patience, and ultimately, forgiveness. Lesbian parents are as imperfect as any, but they’re still not exactly “normal” enough. Their striving to make the kids be all right takes emotional and physical diligence that the film evokes specifically and honestly.

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) have been together long enough to raise 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson), kids they each bore using the same sperm donor. When Laser has pangs of father-longing, he asks his older sister to track down their donor, and emotional complications ensue when Paul (Mark Ruffalo) turns out to be a charismatic, free-spirited organic farmer/restaurateur.

Each of the five characters are complicated enough that how they’ll respond to the awkwardness of their situation is never predictable. Some of the film’s comedy comes from the surprising variety of character reactions, but then, so does its melancholy. Nic and Jules’s long-term relationship is rocky under its smoothly functioning veneer, and both women have sacrificed in ways they don’t even begin to realize until Paul’s presence shakes up their lives.

Nic, the perfectionist OB-GYN who has a bit of a drinking problem, harasses Jules about her lack of focus and ambition, even as Nic’s position funds Jules’s new landscape architecture business. Jules is more artistic and freewheeling, but she’s not unaware of her own psychic complexities. When she and Nic fight about Jules’s flightiness, Jules accuses Nic of having wanted a stay-at-home wife to raise their kids, observing that Nic never really wanted Jules to work. Both women describe their long-term relationship as a marriage, which feels poignant and right in their situation, even in the face of California’s political change of heart about the legality of gay unions.

In other words, Nic and Jules suffer the problems that crop up in most long-term committed relationships, as well as those that plague parents of most teenagers. [Spoiler alert.] Joni, who’s about to leave for college, starts the painful process of separating from her moms, encouraged by Paul’s rule-flouting, easy-going manner. Nic and Jules’s relationship is strained when the kids and Jules take to Paul, and Jules, whom he’s hired to redesign and replant his backyard, finds herself unexpectedly attracted to him sexually. Paul’s appearance provokes a major transition, but happily (for Cholodenko’s story and for us), the bonds between these two women and their kids are only strengthened by the end.

Each of the performances is pitch-perfect. Bening’s face registers each of Nic’s conflicting emotions with a vulnerable openness that refuses to hide anything from the camera, even as Nic tries to hide her feelings from her family. Bening is a remarkable actor—her work here, and with a very different character in Rodrigo Garcia’s film Mother and Child earlier this summer, demonstrates her emotional intelligence as well as her range. Bening plays across the spectrum of human emotion with particular insight into what it means to be a middle-aged, upper-middle class white woman with a complicated set of desires and longings, ambitions and expectations.

Moore plays Jules with a physical looseness and verve that she rarely has occasion to enjoy on screen. As Jules, Moore struggles with how to organize her separate life, but is utterly confident about the importance and centrality of her commitment to Nic and her family. Moore plays Jules’s surprise as she falls into bed with Paul with unbridled excitement and a devilish joy. But when Paul falls in love with her and calls her to spin out a fantasy in which he and Jules will run away with the kids and be their own family, she’s absolutely clear that she’s a lesbian who's already taken: Moore grimaces at his suggestion, hangs up on Paul, and throws the phone away in comic irritation.

Ruffalo plays Paul as a sexy teddy bear of a boy-man, who’s successful with his restaurant because it allows him to play in the dirt all day, eating vegetables he picks off the vine, and dream up recipes to please his customers at night. Ruffalo is hairy in all the right ways as Paul, sporting a scruffy graying stubble and wearing blue jeans and denim shirts open to his navel. He’s an earthy guy, who’s managed certain accomplishments despite dropping out of school (because he found it boring), a good-time type with no commitments to drag him down.

To accentuate his hip-and-grooviness, Paul rides a motorcycle. When he gives young Joni a tour through the streets of LA en route to bringing her home to her moms, the scene evokes the thrill of the forbidden for Joni and prompts unsurprising consequences. Nic, the family disciplinarian, is furious. Paul tells her she just has to “chill out,” a suggestion thrown at Nic more than once throughout the story.

What makes the rather uptight Nic complex and endearing is that she tries to ease up. She suggests a family dinner at Paul’s house, where she makes a huge effort to get on board with Paul’s magnetism and appreciate it with the rest of her captivated family. Over dinner, Nic and Paul discover that they’re both Joni Mitchell fans. Bening plays a hilarious extended scene in which she sings “All I Want” (one of Mitchell’s harder songs to capture a capella) off key and off tempo, with her eyes closed, while the rest of her family winces with affection. This is Nic going out on a limb—the perfectionist willing, for the sake of her family, to do something she’s bad at to make herself human.

In the film’s only predictable moment, Nic leaves that dinner table to use Paul’s bathroom, where, of course, she finds Jules’s hair in his brush and his shower drain, and proceeds to check out his bedroom, where she finds Jules’s hair on his nightstand. Bening transforms from a generous, affectionate mom trying hard to fathom her brood’s attraction for a man she finds unworthy into a cuckolded mate whose realization that she’s been cheated on happens in the presence of her wife’s paramour. Bening plays the wrenching moment with sadness, subtlety, and a whole lot of heart.

Paul hasn’t really grown up. In some ways, he becomes the family’s third child, making goofy faces as scenes end on shots of him reacting to his unusual circumstances. When Laser asks him why he became a sperm donor, Paul tells him he thought it’d be more fun than donating blood. When Laser looks hurt, Paul begins to realize that his actions have consequences for which he’s being asked to take responsibility.

But when he falls in love with Jules, he thinks he can become a man by adopting another woman’s family, and that’s where Cholodenko and Blumberg make sure to underline that he’s wrong. Paul’s biological connection to Joni and Laser gives him no rights; even though Jules, early on, tells him that she sees her kids’ expressions in his face, his DNA doesn’t trump 18 years of child-rearing. Nic finally thwarts his growing desire to move in on her lesbian household, kicking him out and telling him to go make a family of his own.

The Kids are All Right could easily have been about Paul’s redemption, his transition from an unattached boy-toy into a serious co-parent. Happily, Cholodenko and Blumberg avoid that too-conventional plot line. Paul is changed by meeting Nic and Jules and their kids, much more than he changes them, but he doesn’t, in the end, get what he wants, and it’s finally not clear if he’s even learned anything about hiimself.

Each character in The Kids are All Right has their own trajectory, and the script doesn’t favor one over any of the others. Joni (named after Joni Mitchell), who’s on her way to college, precipitates the family crisis not just by contacting Paul, but by becoming an adult who’s leaving their cozy nest. Joni’s hyper-sexual girlfriend, Brooke (Rebecca Lawrence), provides a nice contrast to Joni’s more upright, moral attitude. Joni is also friends with a lovely, sensitive boy, Jai (Kunal Sharma), to whom she’s sexually attracted but hasn’t yet touched.

Her heterosexual awakening is a sweet subplot and never becomes didactic; that is, Cholodenko doesn’t use Joni to reassure spectators that lesbian mothers can raise heterosexual kids. At the same time, it’s Joni who, in frustration after they learn of Jules and Paul’s affair, complains that she’s done everything “right,” that she got good grades and got into all the schools she applied to, all to prove that she’s from a good lesbian family. The burden of being exemplary, Cholodenko suggests, is heavy for those who grow up in less conventional ways.

Laser has a boyfriend, too, and part of the film’s early comedy is about his moms’ suspicions that he might be gay. In fact, the Laser’s friend, Clay (Eddie Hassell), is a moronic guys’ guy, who serves to show off how innately sweet and, well, feminist Laser is by comparison. After jumping from a garage roof on his skateboard and smashing his arm on the dumpster below, Clay decides to pee on the head of a stray dog he and Laser meet in an alley. Laser protects the animal; Clay punches his friend; Laser spits blood from his lip and exits the friendship.

Whatever Laser might have idealized about a relationship with a “dad” also doesn’t transpire. In one of Cholodenko’s smartest choices, Paul is something of a loser as a male role model. Playing basketball with Laser, Ruffalo is hilarious as Paul flubs various moves and throws and never makes a basket, while Laser shoots and scores effortlessly. Paul’s affair with Jules makes him morally and ethically suspect for the rest of the family (Joni tells him she wishes he'd been "better"), but he somehow expects that Laser will side with him. Peering in the window at the family dinner table after Nic has dressed him down for the last time, Paul tries to gain Laser’s favor by shrugging his shoulders and rolling his eyes as though none of what’s transpired is really a big deal. Lazer storms away from the table (and out of Paul’s view) and throws away his food in disgust.

Another of the film’s pleasures is the wonder of watching two stunningly attractive middle-aged actors who seem to have avoided face lifts and Botox injections. Bening and Moore are beautiful women who don’t conform to conventional standards of too-youthful, too-thin, too-vapid American white female attractiveness. Bening (who’s 52) is a mature woman with crows’ feet around her eyes and wrinkles on her neck that make her look even more gorgeous (in my opinion. And the sculpted triceps evident when Nic wears a sleeveless denim shirt on a trip to the hardware store look pretty good, too).

Moore (who’s 50) wears her freckles proudly, and her body, too, seems lived in and comfortably real (though very natural-looking and frankly, spectacular). Jules wears low-slung jeans and purple thong underwear (which Paul admires as Jules bends over to work in his yard), but she looks like a middle-age woman who’s arty and lives in LA. Jules’s red hair is never quite coiffed, but just worn. And although Nic is a successful OB-GYN with a spiky, short haircut, she wears jeans and jackets and signature black Converse sneakers that flatter her beauty but don’t hide the very normal size of Bening’s middle-aged body. Nic and Jules might wear the casual clothes and leather bands and chokers and silver jewelry of upper-class white LA lesbians, but they aren’t L Word women (or, god forbid, The Real L Word women); they’re mature, smart, and work hard at their lives.

Cholodenko and Blumberg’s script captures with humor and insight what might be most different about lesbian relationships and parenting: the over-analyzing, over-sharing, and over-speaking that’s somehow typical (not to be essentialist about this) of some women who love one another and raise kids together. Some of the movie’s funniest dialogue is delivered by Nic and Jules when they’re trying to reach out to their kids. For example, when they suspect Laser is gay, they both go on about how he can talk to them and trust them. When Laser and Clay discover the moms’ cache of gay male porn, Laser asks why they watch men instead of women, and Jules delivers a hilarious explanation that’s funny not because it’s wrong, but because it’s so truthful.

Jules says that women’s sexuality is internal, which means that sometimes it’s fun to see sexuality externalized. And, she explains, in Moore’s deliberate, generous, too open delivery, lesbian porn is often cast with straight women, which makes it inauthentic. (Some might say the same about The Kids are All Right, since Bening and Moore are straight; I'd disagree. In fact, Moore's speech in this scene might be Cholodenko's wry dig at that inevitable complaint.) Watching Jules offer too much information to her young straight son in an attempt to be a good, honest lesbian parent is a hysterical, perfectly on target social observation.

The film’s one misstep is its treatment of Jules’s Latino garden assistant, Luis (Joaquín Garrido), who understands that she and Paul are having an affair. His face registers the pleasure of his knowledge when their liaison dawns on him, which Jules misreads as judgment. She summarily fires him, archly telling him she won’t reconsider. The poor guy loses his job in the story, and in the film, the character's reactions and speech are racially stereotyped in ways that seem gratuitous.

Of course, what makes The Kids are All Right remarkable is that it’s a mainstream film about a lesbian family (a white, upper-middle class lesbian family in LA, that is) with big-name stars, and that means a lot at this particular moment in history. Kathy Wolfe, the founder and CEO of the LGBT video distribution company, Wolfe, in her editorial in, calls the movie the lesbian Brokeback Mountain, since it stars major Hollywood actors and has achieved wide distribution (by Focus Features, which also released Brokeback and Milk). But where Brokeback addressed a physical and emotional desire that drew its two men together persistently over time during a moment when their queerness might have gotten them killed, The Kids are All Right tells its funny, poignant tale from the perspective of an historical moment when seeing two moms like Nic and Jules deliver their daughter to college doesn’t warrant a second glance (well, at least in some places).

But it’s easy to forget that Nic and Jules—and the many lesbian mothers who no doubt inspired Chodolenko’s film, herself included—were pioneers 20 years ago, using sperm banks and artificial insemination to create their families of choice. And these characters provide one of the first film representations of a long-term lesbian couple that actually seems convincing. They work to keep their sex life active, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. (The scene in which Nic wears her glasses so that she can see the gay male porn on their bedroom television and criticizes the men’s bodies while Jules is under the covers working to make her happy is very funny.) They find more frequent intimacy talking about their kids with one another, face to face on their pillows at night. They know they’re different from one another; Nic is controlling and Jules is perpetually lost. Their power dynamic means that Jules sometimes feels invisible, at home raising the family while Nic is distracted with work. They're not perfect.

As Jules says, a marriage is really hard work and you inevitably hurt the ones you love most as you slog through the years, making mistakes you sometimes can’t fix and trying to go on. Jules interrupts Nic, Joni, and Laser, who are watching television together on the couch, and stands in front of the screen to deliver her homily. The scene is beautifully performed—Moore’s eyes tear and her voice chokes, and Bening cries as she looks up at her wife, clinging to Joni and Laser’s hands. At the end of the monologue, Jules realizes she’s been speechifying, awkwardly says, “Thanks,” and nearly bows, then leaves the room while Nic sobs on the couch. We don’t see them reconcile—we just see their lives continue, as they take Joni off to college.

When they’ve said their goodbyes to their oldest child, and the now-three of them get back in their car (a Volvo station wagon, of course) to return home, Laser says from his perch in the back seat, “I don’t think you two should break up.” Amused, Nic asks why not, and he retorts with affection, “You’re too old.” Nic and Jules smile at one another and reach to each other across the car seat. The film ends on a close-up of their hands clasped—two middle-aged women’s hands, forcefully joined, fiercely determined, loving the past they share and the future they’ll create.

Can’t argue with that.

The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

[Spoiler alerts inevitable here . . . ] I just finished the third book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series and have to report that I’m already mourning the loss of what turned out to be a fascinating and compelling cast of characters. Motoring through The Girl Who Played with Fire and then the last book, I found myself turning pages not as much to see what would happen, as Lisbeth Salander’s vindication seemed inevitable throughout, but more because I’d come to actually care about the characters and their victories over injustice. I was also frankly curious to see whether Larsson could maintain his even-handedness about gender issues, and was pleased to find that in subtle ways, he emphasized his liberal feminist commitment even further as the series progressed.

Although she was locked up in a hospital room and then a prison cell through 85% of Hornet’s Nest, Lisbeth Salander continued to be one of the most intriguing characters I’ve come across in genre fiction. Her recovery from the near-fatal gunshot wound administered by her own evil father, the Russian defector Alexander Zalachenko, keeps her under the watchful care of an increasingly sympathetic doctor. The security guard stationed outside her door through most of the last novel makes her usual sexual rendezvous impossible until the book’s end.

But nonetheless, the third book demonstrates even more powerfully how Lisbeth’s history of physical and emotional abuse has trained her to use her mind to protect herself from situations and people intent to manipulate or harm her. Her photographic memory allows her to reread huge academic tomes of scientific and mathematical scholarship in her head, so that putting her in sensorially deprived situations like prison or an interrogation room can’t isolate her as much as intended.

Larsson’s descriptions of Lisbeth working out equations nearly in three dimensions as she watches them form in the air offer compelling examples of a brilliant woman whose life-long disempowerment has forced her to keep her own counsel and refuse to communicate according to social dictate. The scenes in which Lisbeth infuriates police and corrupt psychologists are paragons of resistance, in which through her stony silence and implacable gaze, Lisbeth turns the tables on her interrogators and gets the upper hand by removing her soul from the proceedings and enabling herself to survive.

Toward the end of Hornet’s Nest, Larsson begins his chapters with historic tales of Amazons and other women warriors, clearly analogizing the proceedings to those stories of female battle and supremacy. Those passages seem a bit out of place and sometimes heavy-handed, but Larsson meets his own challenge by unraveling this final book with his female characters firmly in control. Lisbeth might be silent, but when her faithful friend, the investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, arranges to have her her hand-held computer smuggled into her hospital room, her IT skills allow her to solve a subsidiary mystery in the story and contribute mightily to her own liberation.

Annika Giannini, Blomkvist’s women’s rights lawyer sister, takes up Lisbeth’s case with righteous feminist zeal to devastate the prosecution’s case against Lisbeth in the book’s climactic trial scenes. She uses to her own advantage her colleagues’ doubts about her qualifications to defend the notorious Salander, saying little through the trial’s earliest testimony. But when the evil Dr. Teleborian takes the stand, Annika radiates feminist ire and scorn, dismantling his fabricated psychological assessment of her client and finally publicizing the lies that have kept Salander a legally incompetent ward of the state since she tried to kill Zalachenko with a Molotov cocktail when she was only thirteen.

The scene of Annika’s triumph is a feminist fantasy of speaking truth to power, a brilliant take-down of a pompous pedophile who’s been used by the shadowy Secret Police sub-unit the Section to help protect their Russian charge.

In the limited way she can, Lisbeth comes to trust and appreciate Giannini’s skill. The last time they meet, she even propositions her lawyer, inviting her over for a night of casual sex of the only sort Lisbeth entertains—no promises, no complications, and no commitments. Giannini laughs and declines her offer with thankful appreciation, delighted that Salander is the first client who’s ever propositioned her.

Lisbeth’s vindication also makes hay with the prosecution’s attempt to portray her as a lesbian Satanist (the only scare word missing from Larsson’s taxonomy is “feminist”). The book’s villains are the homophobes, like Detective Faste, who joins forces with the narcissistic and inept prosecutor Ekstrom to bring Salander down by feeding the press misinformation about the woman’s debauchery.

Likewise, Jonas Sandberg, the Section’s young operations professional who does much of the older generation’s legwork in Hornet’s Nest, is also homophobic, describing the Millennium journal’s gay art director as a “faggot.” Faste and Ekstrom’s ignominy is publicized, and Sandberg, too, is taken down when the specially appointed (female) prosecutor arrests him and his older cronies on the third day of Lisbeth’s incendiary trial.

The book, then, not only allows good to triumph, but also promotes a kind of liberal humanism that emphatically includes women, lesbians, gay men, and immigrants under its enfranchised bailiwick. Even Erika Berger, in the book’s subplot, triumphs in a distinctly feminist battle with the staff and board of directors of Sweden Morgen Poste (SMP), the Stockholm daily newspaper she’s recruited to turn back from the brink of extinction. Her ballsy approach to editing the paper incurs the wrath of a deep network of good ole’ boys, and Larsson doesn’t skimp on clarifying that the backlash against Berger’s leadership is distinctly gendered.

She’s targeted for a slander campaign by Peter Fredericksson, an assistant editor who appears to be her supporter at the paper, but turns out to be behind the “poison pen” emails sent to Erika at SMP and disseminated under her name. After reading online from her hospital bed that Berger’s house has also been attacked, Salander uses her hacking skills to unmask the stalker, despite her lingering jealousy over Erika that forced Lisbeth to bleed away her feelings for Blomkvist.

That Fredericksson was a one-time schoolmate of Berger’s, holding a grudge because she never gave him a second look during high school, is one of Larsson’s only rather dubious plot resolutions. But the subplot allows Berger to employ the same kind of feminist invective that comes in handy for Giannini, and also lets Berger establish a friendship with Susanne Linder, the employee of the stalwart firm Morgan Security, who’s employed to protect Berger from her attacker. That Erika and Susanne cross what are no doubt class lines to form a fast and easy, mutually admiring friendship is also a pleasurable aspect of Larsson’s final book.

Likewise, Blomkvist’s new paramour, Sapo employee Monica Figuerola, is a sharply drawn feminist character. She’s an exercise fanatic—she explains that she’s addicted to endorphins—who almost made the Swedish Olympic team. Larsson describes her muscled physique as hard and impressive, her six foot frame intimidating to men insecure about their own professional and physical power.

Once they meet, as the “good” division of Sapo intersects their investigation with Blomkvist’s and Morgan Security’s, Figuerola makes the first pass at Blomkvist, which he accepts and begins the affair that ends the book and that might just also end his long-term relationship with the married Erika. That Blomkvist and Monica talk so quickly of love sounds another slightly false note, even though Larsson takes pains to describe the large and unwieldy passion that draws them together.

Blomkvist protests that he’s never been a one-woman kind of man, and Figuerola, too, hasn’t been inclined toward monogamy and marriage. But for some reason, in one another’s arms, they’re willing to rethink their resistance to convention. Too bad.

Lisbeth, though, seems apt to continue her randy, non-monogamous ways. It’s still refreshing to read a female character who’s casual about sex, who likes sex for physical, more than emotional, reasons, and who won’t truck with the elaborate and typically gendered plots of seduction. When she’s finally released from the hell of her hospitalization, imprisonment, and trial, she escapes to Gibraltar to see how her financier has been handling her wealth.

One night, she arranges a tryst with a middle-aged, overweight, ordinary German businessman she sees alone in the hotel bar speaking to his wife on his cell phone. She follows him into the elevator and offers him sex with no strings attached. Incredulous but finally game, the businessman spends several nights with Salander until his guilt gets the better of him. Larsson portrays her sexual escapades as guileless and straightforward, not at all the depraved stuff the evil Teleborian tried to describe as evidence of her social pathology.

The finale of Hornet’s Nest wraps up the story’s various subplots with more or less panache. Larsson introduces a multitude of characters into this final book, as he reveals all the details of the establishment and ultimate downfall of the Section for Special Analysis of the Swedish Secret Police. Prime ministers, state secretaries, justices, and various detectives, police, and security operatives play their roles in the conspiracy to protect Zalachenko at all costs. The rogue’s gallery of villains are apprehended and charged one by one at the story’s end, but Larsson leaves the missing monster Ronald Niedermann until almost the end.

Forced to address her father’s estate, Lisbeth notes with curiosity that he’s bought an old, rundown brickworks factory in a suburb of Stockholm. When she travels to see it for herself, Lisbeth stumbles onto her half-brother’s hiding place and is forced to confront the last vestiges of her genetic relationships. Niedermann traps her in the factory, but with her typical ingenuity, Lisbeth not only frees herself, but sees to it that justice is meted out to Niedermann while keeping her own hands clean.

The only thread left unraveled is the mystery of what happened to Camilla, Lisbeth’s twin sister. Perhaps Larsson had something planned for Lisbeth’s identical other, the one who protested her father’s innocence and played into the Section’s hands. I can’t help wondering what a showdown between Lisbeth and Camilla would have been like, given Lisbeth’s insistence on maintaining sharp emotional borders. How might a look-alike sister have triggered her deep emotional well of frustration and anger? Larsson’s untimely death just before the trilogy was published in Sweden means we’ll never know.

Happily, though, Lisbeth’s last act as a character is to allow Blomkvist back into her life as the friend he insists on being. Salander spends a rejuvenating three months in Gibraltar and, on her financial investor’s advice, takes a two-week trip to Paris to make amends with Miriam Wu, her occasional lover who was nearly killed by Niedermann in The Girl Who Played with Fire (and rather improbably saved by the boxer Paolo Roberto, another friend-of-Salander who happens to be in the right place at the right time).

When she returns to Stockholm, intent on upholding her duty as a citizen to see through the legal proceedings against her tormentors, and after she dispenses neatly with her half-brother, Lisbeth realizes she no longer has feelings for Blomkvist, which allows her to open her door to him as her friend.

The moment is an appropriate conclusion for the character and for the story—rather unromantic and unsentimental, but true to the spirit of the “girl who” really turned out to be quite a woman after all.

The Feminist Spectator

Thursday, July 08, 2010


Winnie Holzman, who wrote the libretto for the blockbuster Stephen Schwartz musical Wicked and the 1990s television show My So-Called Life is back on tv co-producing with her daughter, Savannah Dooley, ABC Family’s summer show, Huge. The story, based on Sasha Paley’s book of the same name, is set in a summer camp for overweight kids (what used to be called disdainfully a “fat farm”), run by a bi-racial woman who has eating issues of her own.

At first glance, the premise seems vaguely offensive. The advertisement, which shows series star Nikki Blonsky (of John Waters' 2007 Hairspray remake) in a teal one-piece bathing suit looking embarrassed, signals everything that could stink about a show like this. But instead, after watching the first two episodes, I think Holzman and Dooley are doing something much more subversive: creating a television series about overweight teens that’s utterly sympathetic to their self-image issues and at the same time critical of a culture that peddles extreme thinness as a way to sell products and impossible dreams of oxymoronic skinny healthiness to young women.

Blonsky is largely responsible for delivering the show’s critique. She plays Willamina, a teenaged girl furious with her disapproving parents for sending her off to this camp in the first place. She prefers to be called “Will,” signaling both her defiant gender-blurring and her determination not to cave in to public pressure to be thin. She’s proud of being an “angry feminist,” as she calls herself, and decorates her bunk with cut-outs from magazines, using their impossible images of thin women to form letters into words that spell “stop body fascism” and other anti-weight loss messages. That she’s the voice of resistance in a machine trying to help kids conform makes Will one of the most interesting teenage characters I think I’ve ever seen on television.

Gina Torres (I Think I Love My Wife) plays the camp’s biracial owner, Dr. Dorothy Rand, who employs her once estranged white father as the camp’s cook. Although the backstory for their revived relationship and Dorothy’s anxious rapport with her mother has only been hinted at, strain is apparent in Dorothy’s inability to tell her mother about her father’s new presence in her life. The second episode reveals Dorothy’s own eating issues, as her father makes her a “healthy” blueberry muffin that she at first resists, and then unwittingly devours as she’s trying to type out a truthful email to her mother, which she continually deletes.

Already, one of the summer’s residents has been expelled for throwing up (no bulimics allowed here), and her replacement, too, has departed, after suffering extreme anxiety when she’s removed from the gauzy over-protection of her over-weight parents and younger sister. But the remaining kids—especially the girls, on whom the series focuses—are all fairly well-adjusted and insistently “normal,” which makes their weight just another issue to address on their way to adulthood.

Typical kid stuff ensues. Chloe Delgado (Ashley Holliday) keeps secret that her brother, Alistair (Harry Guillen), is also a camper. She hangs with the cool kids, while he seems rather fey. In a nod to Holzman’s musical theatre hit, Alistair wears a Shiz University t-shirt, product placement for Wicked but also perhaps a signal that he’s a budding musical theatre queen.

Alistair and Chloe meet alone in the woods to share news of home and the care packages their mom sends. He tolerates the pretense with a bit of sarcasm, while she feels separating from her brother is necessary to secure her role in the girls’ hierarchy. At night, though, she wears a braces retainer with a harness that circles her head and makes her talk with a lisp, hardly a sign of “mean girl” status.

Most of the girls pop in their teeth-straightening devices at the day’s end, a reminder that despite what sometimes seems their sophistication, they’re still kids. And they’re all staunchly middle class, though fairly diverse racially. One of the lead characters is Will’s best friend, Becca, who’s African-American and wonderfully played by Raven Goodwin, who made her screen debut at eight-years-old as the wise-beyond-her-years kid in the film Lovely and Amazing. One of the boys, Ian Schonfeld (Ari Stidham), wears a big Jewish star around his neck, and several of the campers look racially and ethnically mixed. This, along with the size of the actors, provides a refreshing change from the all-white, svelte profile of most situation comedies.

In fact, Huge really isn’t just a comedy. Although the writing sometimes falls into cliché, with the kids responding to one another’s crises with predictable, wince-inducing platitudes, the show also takes seriously the angst of growing up in a body that doesn’t conform to impossible cultural standards. Will’s refusal to acquiesce to conventional body image offers a refreshing perspective on a wider range of young women’s desires.

The fit, athletic physical profiles of the camp counselors and staff, however, secures the model to which the campers are supposed to aspire. But these characters, so far, are all a bit daft, which undercuts what might be the mocking hegemony of their thinness. The girl’s counselor is well-meant but sweetly clueless, sweeping trauma under a very heavy rug and donning very rosy glasses to cheer her girls on their way to weightlessness.

The hot, deaf-in-one-ear male counselor, George (Zander Eckhouse), is good at sports but diffident and shy instead of more predictably macho. The female athletic director wears sports bras and tight-fitting capris that show off her muscly frame, but her enthusiasm for games is played way over the top. She shrieks her encouragement with such vigor, George could soon be deaf in both ears. And even Dr. Rand, who’s supposed to be in charge, mostly wrings her hands, evidence of her own anxiety about doing the right thing.

Camp, in other words, is full of imperfect people, regardless of their weight. The producers take care not to make fun of them, but to instead encourage empathy among them and from spectators toward the characters. They also differentiate empathy from pity, careful to clarify that nothing is necessarily out of these kids’ reach because of their weight. The move to lose is mostly about health.

The show’s web site,, includes this admonishment to viewers:

At ABC Family, we believe that healthy living means living life to the fullest. In order to live your best life, it’s important to take care of yourself -- physically, mentally and emotionally. Here you’ll be given tips on how to eat nutritious snacks and meals, add exercise into your busy life, and build a stronger, more positive sense of self -- because living a healthy life means having healthy self-esteem too!

Ask The Panel Huge questions and get Huge answers as they share with you important information about health and provide you with ways you can get healthy today! Reach out to our self-esteem specialist and discover how to appreciate yourself even more!

Love Huge, Think Huge, Act Huge. Whatever you do, do it to the fullest – LIVE HUGE!

Cool message, one that also runs between commercials when the show is broadcast. “Healthy living” is code for “losing weight”; will Huge never be mistaken as an infomercial for fat liberation. Nonetheless, the effort to program for kids in ways that might offer them agency and more reasonable role models to emulate around body image can’t be bad.

I worry, though, about how Huge already psychologizes weight as a result of family dysfunction. For example, a camper who’s good at sports lives with his father, since his mother died when he was young. But when he’s lonely and sad, he writes her letters about how much he misses her, since he and his father only communicate about teams and statistics. Will’s parents seem to disapprove of everything Will does, which heightens the alienation her weight could be meant to manifest. Ian says his parents don’t get along. The alpha girl, Amber, lives alone with a mother who seems oppressively co-dependent on her daughter.

Only the quickly departed camper who suffers from panic attacks has supportive, warm parents. They even adopt Will in their short time at camp, encouraging her to play basketball until she realizes to her surprise that she likes the game. That these parents are overweight, too, suggests that feeling good about yourself despite your body might be the healthiest option.

I worry, too, over Will’s quick concern that she’s been mistaken for “queer” when Ian implies he thinks she is. Becca is uncomfortable with the idea that Will could be queer, and says she’s never met any lesbians her own age (although the easy way she says “lesbians” belies her discomfort). Becca vindicates them both by quickly announcing to Ian that Will is straight and the issue is dropped. But fishing out a lavender herring this early in the series to reassure viewers that Will might be fat and feminist but she’s a normal heterosexual seems cheap.

I also worry that Amber, the one character who’s already heading toward a romance with the hard-of-hearing counselor, George, is the thinnest girl at camp. Played by Hayley Hasselhoff, daughter of David, who was a plus-size teen model before she turned to acting, Amber is beautiful and even a bit soulful, but at least 50 pounds lighter than the other girls. Against the prevailing effort of the show, her character telegraphs that thinness and beauty do bring rewards.

Still, Huge has potential as a summer series. Blonsky is terrific as Will. Proud of her weight and her intellect, full of sarcastic comebacks but vulnerable underneath, as observant about the other kids as she is about herself, Blonsky plays the character with subtle understatement and a healthy empathy of her own. She’s not afraid to make Will loud, aggressive, hostile, and unappealing. She’s also able to temper Will’s anger without making the character appear to capitulate or sell-out her own firm beliefs. Blonsky’s intelligence as an actor reads powerfully on television. Her performance alone is enough reason to check in on Huge.

The Feminist Spectator

Nikki Blonsky in ABC Family's Huge