The Kids are All Right: B+
Watching the new film by Lisa Cholodenko, I felt a lot of initial admiration for the execution of such a film. It's rare these days to find a film that attempts to juggle adolescent insecurities, middle age marital woes, family values, and more, while subverting many of these everyday issues by filtering the film's lens through that of Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Benning), an upper-class lesbian couple raising two teenage children in the vastness of Los Angeles. And while I sat ensconced thoroughly enjoying this dramatic comedy, I marveled at its ability to juxtapose comedy and drama often within the same scene in a fashion that made the proceedings, well . . . really, really likable. Every major character in this film comes off this way while on screen, and I salute all of the actors (Moore, Benning, Mark Ruffalo as the kids' sperm donor, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson as the kids) for investing their characters with a lot of humanity that stems from the littlest of gestures just as much as it does the pointed dialogue that often finds its mark ("I need your advice about as much as I need a dick in my ass!").
And yet . . and yet . . . and yet, one narrative decision bothers me in a fairly egregious fashion that doesn't stop me from recommending you go see the film (for one thing, it's a pleasure to see a film centered around two flawed, adult, educated women and both major performances deserve recognition), but I am disappointed and a bit concerned by this major element that I believe weakens the film's overall impact. This flagrant narrative miscalculation doesn't derail the film in its entirety, but it raises certain issues in a way I feel seem to be a gross error in content and, more importantly, in a macroscopic perspective of societal norms. Since my concerns revolve around this major plot point, I cannot write about it without spoiling a part of the film (although previews hint at it). Therefore, you should stop reading now and jump to the section where it states: End Spoilers!
Jules begins to have an affair with Paul, her children's sperm donor. What begins with a kiss turns into a sexual liaison between two consenting adults that threatens to destroy the life Jules and Nic have made for themselves and their children. An affair would be a point of conflict between various characters regardless of the characters' sexual orientation, but the affair proves troubling in this film because beneath the surface complexities of cheating on your significant other lies the potentially dangerous assumption that homosexuality is a choice. I don't believe the director/co-writer, Lisa Cholodenko (a lesbian), believes this to be true; I don't dispute the fact that Jules could potentially be bisexual (though we are not given any clues to suggest this); and I don't equate sex with sexual orientation-one can be separated from the other I believe. However, Jules' decision provides people who oppose homosexuality/homosexual marriage or unions with an example of how homosexuality is a choice rather than something predetermined via genetic/environmental/societal factors. After talking with my brother, my mother, my sister, and her wife, we were all a little perplexed and some of us were flat-out bothered not by the infidelity (this has organic roots in the presentation of Jules and Nic's struggling relationship), but in Cholodenko's choice of gender. Why did Jules, a lesbian who for all we know has been faithful to Nic for 18 plus years, need to fall off the homosexual wagon by sleeping with a man (her children's sperm donor no less, a major plot contrivance)? Why couldn't she have had an affair with another woman? It would have been more messy in an emotionally authentic way to present Jules and Nic's strained relationship via a third woman rather than Paul's character since the emotional dynamics would be reflected through the prism of an established sexual point of view. Granted, the film is about relationships (homosexual and heterosexual), but the whole affair rings false at best and dangerous at worst, something to be used as propaganda by those who believe you can be converted back to heterosexuality. Not exactly the lesson I think the film was trying to make, but one I believe it (unintentionally) makes regardless.
Another problem stemming from the affair is the impact it will have on the children. The title of the film is meant with a smidgen of irony; we’re introduced to Laser as he and his friend tip over trash barrels and snort drugs. Yet the film uses the affair to deal more with the fallout between Jules and Nic rather than their kids, who take more backseat roles as the story progresses. This seismic shift in Joni and Laser's world is not ignored completely, but it's treated in such a shallow, lazy way. Joni gets drunk at a party. Joni fights with Nic. Joni tells off Paul. Laser ignores Paul when he comes to the house. Nothing in the film really attempts to address in a sincere, meaningful way the fact these teenagers are watching their mothers' relationship implode, which is a shame because the film started off with a focus on the children. After all, Laser and Joni were the ones who searched out Paul and they started to form a relationship with him, however tentative or naive. After they first met Paul, their initial reactions to him seemed so sincere. Joni was taken with Paul's groovy lifestyle choices (he owns/operates a restaurant utilizing local ingredients and he drives a motorcycle) which seemed so less rigid and formulaic a path than the one she had embarked upon, while Laser's critical comments of Paul reflected his level of genuine hurt disguised as nonchalance after Paul had innocently belittled organized sports, something at which Laser excelled. By the end of the film, I felt like the children had been marginalized from the affair's fallout and the audience gets treated to a facile ending that neglects to truly deal with the kids and whether they are all right.
Other, little things bothered me. Jules hires a middle-aged Latino man to help with the landscaping of Paul's backyard, which is a truthful portrayal of the hired help most readily available in LA. But despite the class condescension towards this character, believable since Jules lives an upper-class lifestyle, her remarks and the director's stabs at humor come off as racist and unnecessary. All scenes involving this man should have been edited out since they added zero to the film and cast another ugly glow on it. All of these mistakes weaken what is essentially a strong relationship drama.
And yet . . . I do no completely dismiss The Kids Are All Right; in fact, I highly recommend people go see it and judge for themselves. Something the film gets right, more than it gets wrong: the little moments in a relationship that establish a sense of lives lived together where your significant other knows just the right thing to say or do and just the wrong thing. It's these little slights Jules and Nic playfully and antagonistically give off that provide for a lot of the film's prickly humor and dramatic depth whether it be Jules' needling of Nic's need for more wine or Nic's verbal barbs concerning Jules' lack of professional commitment (Jules is trying to get a landscape design business off the ground, while Nic obviously is the monetary provider as a doctor). Their relationship feels real and both actresses perform it gracefully. Many of the difficulties they face as a couple transcend labels and can be universally applied to anyone in a long-term relationship. Does this person still love me? Does this person even find me attractive any more? Have I sacrificed more than I've gained from this relationship? If so, am I OK with the decisions I've made?
At its heart, The Kids are All Right forges ahead to erase a line between what is a traditional family and what is an alternative family. I admire its willingness to tackle this issue even if I strongly believe it places roadblocks in its way that hinder and weaken the argument that there's really no line of demarcation: they are both one and the same. Hopefully, though, this film will only be the start of many films that present such families on screen, warts and all, in a way neither somberly dramatic nor infused with sterile eccentricity, but, in a word, is merely real.