SPOILER WARNING: This column is an analysis of the film The Kids Are All Right and, as such, contains significant spoilers. You have been duly forewarned.
I realize it’s not the popular thing to say, but I’m going to go out on a limb and tell you that I finally got around to seeing The Kids Are All Right and it was just … all right. Look, it’s not a bad film, by any means. In fact, it may even be a pretty good film. But the best film of the year? Or even in the top ten best films of the year? Not quite. Sure, it’s a hell of a lot better than a lot of movies to which it’s been inaccurately compared, but if I could only put one or two indie films this year seriously in the Oscar race, Winter’s Bone or Biutiful, Another Year or Get Low, would all be way ahead of The Kids Are All Right on my list.
The film wants to keep the focus, as its title implies, on the parents being the screwed up ones, while the kids somehow came out okay in spite of them. But while it’s unarguably a mostly positive portrayal of same-sex parents (and the ways in which Annette Bening’s Nic and Julianne Moore’s Jules do falter as parents are certainly not specific to lesbian couples), it felt to me to be very self-conscious.
More specifically, it felt to me to be suffering from, as David Foster Wallace might say, a bad case of “second-order vanity.” That is to say, it’s exceedingly aware we are watching it, and it wants very much, even desperately, for us to look at it and judge it as good — but at the same time, it feels equally important, even imperative, that it not be perceived as caring about whether we like it.
I wouldn’t go so far as to accuse The Kids Are All Right of being “precious” or “twee” or any other cool, smarty-pants hipster terms, but I will say that I found it inconsistent in its character arcs (with the exception of Bening’s Nic, who was the most fully formed of the characters) and loose, even lacking, in painting a believable picture of a family on the verge of an identity crisis.
Director Lisa Cholodenko, working off a script that she co-wrote with Stuart Blumberg, gets many of the surface details of the family life Nic and Jules have built right: production-wise, the neat, well-appointed family homestead looks, for the most part, like a family has lived there for 10 years; Nic and Jules hit the right notes of the comfortable affection of a long-term relationship, calling each other “honey” and kissing in greeting, and their bantering about their day over dinner or talking in bed late at night feels normal and mostly not contrived or overly self-aware.
But there are times when the undercurrent of tension between them goes unexplored just when it’s on the verge of getting really interesting, moments when we’d like to see Cholodenko push her characters all the way into a fight, but she pulls back. It’s almost as if she doesn’t want to let Nic and Jules engage in conflict that’s not passive-aggressive. I suppose you could argue that this is a strength of the film, that it builds the tension later for both Nic and Jules to hold things in, to allow those little irritations to rub and chafe a bit against the comfortable fit of their years together.
But I wanted to see a bit more of the seams unraveling before sperm donor Paul is thrust into their lives by the kids’ decision to secretly meet him. Because in spite of the script wanting it to be so, it’s actually not Paul who disrupts their lives; it’s more that his presence allows long dormant, underlying cracks in the foundation of Nic and Jules’ relationship to grow to the point that they threaten everything that they’ve built together. But it’s easier to blame everything on Paul, even though Jules gets it right when she makes her speech at the end about how marriage is fucking hard. It is fucking hard, it’s years of peaks and valleys and being committed to working through the times when things threaten to fall apart together. So why make Paul the scapegoat here?
Unfortunately, while the script gets it right with Jules speech at the end — and Bening breaks your heart to pieces as she struggles, and fails, to hold back the flood of tears listening to it — it misses the mark by taking the path of “let’s just banish Paul, and all will be well again.” This just doesn’t ring true with the relationships as they’ve been established at that point, particularly between Paul and the kids.
Ruffalo plays Paul very well, capturing the casual hipster-bohemian vibe of this guy who’s chosen to live exactly the life he has, very deliberately excluding the responsibility of wife and children from the mix. He’s perfectly believable as the kind of guy Paul is: He owns a self-consciously hip, edgy and politically correct, “local organic ingredients” kind of restaurant; he’s a flirty, effortlessly sexy, laid-back sort, the guy who can probably always be counted on to have a smidge of weed on him at any given time. He’s great at sex, but lousy at relationships. Most of us know that guy, and Ruffalo nails him.
But Cholodenko pulls back from allowing Ruffalo to play out Paul as the layered, intricately flawed guy he could be, relying instead on his maleness alone to be the threatening factor, and this keeps the story from being as complex or interesting as it could be.
It would be more in keeping for the kind of solipsistic guy Paul has always been to have him get close to the kids, then get scared by that closeness and the feeling of responsibility for another person it triggers, and for him to yo-yo back and forth with the kids’ emotions. Or for Joni, who’s always strived to be the perfect daughter and live up to her mother’s rigid expectations, to decide after meeting Paul to put that National Merit Scholarship on hold for a year to go backpacking around Europe, and for this to threaten Nic. Point is, there were other, maybe better ways to create conflict in the family from the kids bringing Paul into their lives and themselves into his, without resorting to Paul and Jules having a completely unrealistic affair as the catalyst for crisis.
Paul was the sperm donor for both Joni (Mia Wasikowsak) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), so they are half-blood sibs with two different moms which, it seems to me, is a smart and practical way for a pair of lesbians to handle building their family. Joni and Laser’s entry in Paul’s life is at first welcomed by Paul mainly as a curiosity; one gets the sense that it hadn’t really crossed his mind greatly that the sperm he donated for $60 back in his younger days might actually get used to make real babies, who would grow up into teenagers who might be curious to meet him.
Herein lies another problem with the script: It’s younger brother Laser who convinces big sis Joni, who’s just turned 18, to get in contact with their sperm donor/biological father, but the script doesn’t really explore any issues around why a teenage boy raised by two women might be curious about his father or desire a male adult in his life. But once they meet, it’s Joni who’s more drawn to Paul, while Laser is unimpressed; it’s Joni who first suggests getting together with Paul again.
It almost felt to me as though this was a deliberate choice on Cholodenko’s part, to deny that this might be something a boy raised by two women might face as he hits his teen years. If we can accept that in general, boys raised by single moms, or in matriarchal family structures with a grandmother and mother but no father figure might, at some point, benefit from having a male mentor of some sort in their lives (uncle, family friend, Big Brother volunteer, pastor, coach), why wouldn’t the same hold true for a boy raised by two moms?
It doesn’t speak to a failure on the part of the moms, or a flaw in the idea of two lesbians raising a son, to acknowledge that a boy raised in a houseful of females might at some point desire to know his father or just to have an adult male to turn to. This could have been an interesting aspect of Laser as a character to explore — he’s the least developed of the characters, unfortunately — and could have taken the story a different direction at the end. What if Joni is unforgiving when the kids learn of the affair, but Laser insists on still having a relationship with Paul because it’s become important to him to have a male role model in his life? What if Laser pushes back at the end when Nic sends Paul away? Wouldn’t that have had a ring of truth to it?
Getting back to Paul: The more he gets to experience the family that Nic and Jules have built with their kids, the more it makes him aware of some things he’s missed out on. Problem is, Nic is more than a little territorial and protective of the family life she and Jules have worked so hard to build. Paul is neither needed nor wanted — he is, in her words, a “fucking interloper” — and she resents Jules and the kids wanting to widen their family circle to include Paul.
The relationship that develops between Paul and Jules I found particularly problematic. It’s never said or implied that Jules was previously bisexual, but the script treats her sexual identity as something she can just cast aside. And while I got that she was connecting with Paul emotionally, that he was accepting of her in ways that Jules feels Nic is not, that he “gets” her in a way which perhaps she didn’t even know was lacking in her life, I didn’t buy that this would translate into lesbian Jules suddenly hopping in bed with a guy. Paul and Jules developing a friendship, him becoming her confidant, them maybe talking to each other all the time and shutting Nic out, and that feeling threatening to Nic? That, I would buy.
But without establishing in some way that Jules was previously bisexual, her reacting to all this by being sexually attracted to Paul and suddenly deciding that she desperately needs to have sex with a man just felt to me very contrived for the sake of creating a conflict in the story. What are we saying here? That this lesbian couple’s life together is so fragile that all it takes is a man walking in the door to throw things all catawampus? That a handsome man strolls in, all manly and sweaty and testosterone-y, replete with the scent of manly sweat and shower gels and body sprays, and lesbian Jules suddenly goes all a-flutter and cannot resist the desire to strip off her clothing and avail herself of his manly bits? Seriously?
I think of the gay and lesbian couples I know, and I cannot imagine that in a time of relationship crisis, any of them would suddenly seek comfort in the bed of an opposite sex partner. Or that a straight guy who wasn’t already a closeted bi or gay would suddenly develop a urgent desire to hop in bed with another guy. To me, by not explicitly establishing Jules as bi, Cholodenko loses a lot of credibility here.
Further, this whole story arc plays right into the conservative right BS that being gay is a “lifestyle choice” and not a wired part of who a person is, and I’m surprised at Cholodenko for going there, and more so that folks in the generally gay-friendly film industry haven’t been very vocal in criticizing this aspect of the film. Even the very idea of bisexuality is controversial within certain quarters of the gay community, and people aren’t up in arms that there’s finally a movie that depicts a same sex couple as parents in a positive way, and one of the lesbian characters just falls into bed with a man?
I also took issue with the graphic portrayal of the sex scenes between Jules and Paul, which felt to me to be gratuitous and exploitative. The lesbian sex between Jules and Nic is hidden discreetly under covers while the hetero action was all bare asses and hard fucking; it would have been braver of Cholodenko to reverse that. Further, with the sex scenes between Paul and Jules, we don’t need to see them naked and copulating to get the point, such as it is. Actually, the last time Paul and Jules fall into bed together, the sex is implied and we cut to them lying in bed after, and it’s much more effective than the previous explicit scenes.
And then in the end, rather than actually dealing with the underlying issues between Nic and Jules, Cholodenko uses Paul as the scapegoat. The kids more or less forgive Jules for making a choice that threatened their family, while Paul is flatly unforgiven and shunned from the fold. He didn’t ask for any of this to be brought into his life, but it was, and now it’s changed irrevocably who he is and what he wants out of life … but he can’t have it with these children.
They are half his kids in the purely biological sense, but they are all Nic’s and Jules’ in the emotional one. The problem is, I didn’t see anything in his previous interactions with the kids that would convince me that, having wanted to meet their biological father for so long, they would excise him from their lives so readily because their mom decided to have an affair with him.
I guess what it comes down to is that I just didn’t buy the premise that the kids were ever really all right — or at least as “all right” as Cholodenko and Bening’s Nic would like the world to believe about this “perfect lesbian family.” It feels like it was very important to Cholodenko to show us that two kids raised by a lesbian couple can turn out okay. Well, of course they can. Just like the kids of straight couples, kids raised by homosexual parents can grow up to be all right, or not all right.
I would have liked to see the kids here portrayed as “all right,” but with the normal flaws and foibles kids that age tend to have. If Joni, at 18, is just now starting to rebel a teensy bit against her moms and want to spread her wings because she’s about to leave for college, is that really “all right,” or is it indicative of Nic’s control-freak tendencies maybe inhibiting Joni from reaching toward independence a few years earlier?
There are some very strong performances here from Bening and Moore, and they are so powerful individually and in the dynamic they establish between their characters that it’s easy to get swept away by that and overlook some of the glaring problems with the story and character relationships overall. And the thing is, they are, for the most part, relatively small issues that could have been easily tightened up with a little work looking at the flow of the story and searching for the weak spots that needed a bit of strengthening, but collectively they greatly weaken the overall film and make it feel more like a director pushing a personal agenda with a “message” film and less authentically a solid story. And I’m not giving it a pass just because it deals with a same-sex couple raising kids.
Some fine-tuning would have made this really script hum and given it a believability that right now is stretched a bit thin, rather than relying on the strength of the excellent cast to carry the audience past the holes. The Kids Are All Right, then, ends up being not great, but just all right. It’s not as brave or authentic or true as it could have been, and that’s a shame, because there was a lot here that hinted at the possibility of “great.”