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 theadvocate.com http://www.advocate.com/Society/Modern_Families/Our_Lesbian_Brokeback_The_Kids_Are_All_Right/, 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