This review was originally published on CarnalNation. The movie is now available on DVD, and it received four Oscar nominations, including on for Best Picture.
Are queers just like everyone else?
Are queers just ordinary human beings, with the same hopes and fears and neuroses and dreams as everybody? Or are queers fundamentally different from straight people, with profoundly different ways of dealing with sex and gender and love and family?
It’s a question that shows up most dramatically in debates between assimilationists and separatists (and those of us on the spectrums in between). But it also shows up in the hearts and minds of queers — and straight people with queers in their lives — when we’re searching our souls in private about who we are and how we fit into the world.
And it’s a question explored in fascinating, funny, painful, complicated, and almost excruciatingly human detail in the brilliant new film, “The Kids Are All Right.”
Along with a whole host of equally compelling questions about sex, humanity, and selfhood…. and how they intertwine.
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko (“Laurel Canyon,” “High Art”), “The Kids Are All Right” stars Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as Nic and Jules, a long-term lesbian couple with two teenage kids: one on the verge of college, the other still in the depths of high school. Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) get curious about their anonymous sperm donor/ father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo): they look him up, meet him, and begin folding him into their family life.
Not- so- wacky hijinks ensue. Paul, an easygoing, live- for- the- moment restaurant owner and self-avowed non- team- player, is in a lot of ways a breath of fresh air for this family, and the things he has to offer are things each of them needs: independence and rebellion for Joni, a model for manhood other than “macho asshole” for Laser, a willingness to relinquish control and let things be for Nic, and for Jules… well, I’ll get to that in a minute, when I get to the spoilers. But the flip side of Paul’s easygoing, live- for- the- moment attitude is his self-absorption and irresponsibility, his blithe disregard for the effect he has on others. And the breath of fresh air he breathes into the family soon becomes a hurricane.
So what does this have to do with queerness? Well, one of the first things you notice about Nic and Jules is all the ways they’re like every other long- married couple. Of any sexual orientation. The casually deep intimacy and the dumb squabbles; the easy affection and the old, unresolved conflicts; the long history of things that never get said and the long history of things so well understood they don’t need to be said… all this will be instantly familiar to anybody who’s married. Or who knows people who are married. Which is to say, anybody.
Yet at the same time, Nic and Jules are very much a lesbian couple. At times to the point of being scary. The processing, the casual use of therapy-speak both to communicate and to score points, will have every lesbian couple in the audience hiding under the seats in embarrassed recognition. More positively, the two women’s ease with their bodies and with each other’s bodies, the complete comfort with which they see themselves as women while offhandedly rejecting almost every conventional image of femininity, will be instantly and delightfully familiar to anyone who’s hung around dykes for more than fifteen minutes. And of course, the crux of the story — the kids of the two moms looking up their sperm donor — hinges on the special circumstances of this being a queer family. As does the particular way that Hurricane Paul wreaks havoc on the family. (Again — more on that in a tic.)
So are Nic and Jules just like every other married couple? Or is their lesbian marriage fundamentally different from a straight marriage?
The answer — to both questions — is Yes. Yes, this is a marriage much like any marriage, a story almost any married couple will relate to. And at the same time: Yes, this is a lesbian marriage, deeply rooted in lesbian culture. Queers are human beings — we’re not frogs or barnacles, of course we have deep things in common with the rest of the human race. And at the same time: Queers are queers, part of a unique culture, with experiences and quirks that even the most queer-friendly straight people are never going to get.
But Nic and Jules are more than just another married couple. And they’re more than just a distinctly lesbian married couple.
They’re Nic and Jules.
“The Kids Are All Right” is one of the most intensely human movies I’ve seen in a long time. The characters feel completely real, and completely individual, as real and individual as anyone I might meet at a party and strike up a conversation with. They are flawed and powerful, sympathetic and aggravating, thoughtful and selfish, careless and loving, disturbing and funny, with good sides and bad sides that are deeply intertwined flip-sides of one another. The characters in this movie are unique. And their marriage is unique.
Which, paradoxically, is a huge part of what makes the movie resonate so strongly. This isn’t a movie about Marriage, or about Lesbian Marriage. It’s a movie about one particular marriage, and one particular family. And that uniqueness, the humanity shown with such rawness it’s sometimes painful to watch, is what makes these characters feel so intensely familiar. It’s something I’ve often said about fiction: To make a story people can identify with, don’t make it generic. Make it personal. Making it personal is what makes it true.
There’s a complaint I’m beginning to see about this movie, especially from queers. (And this is where the spoiler I’ve been alluding to comes in. Spoiler alert — now!) The major plot turn in “The Kids Are All Right” happens when Jules starts doing some landscaping work for Paul, and they wind up having an affair. With disastrous effects: not only on Nic and Jules’ marriage, but on the kids’ blossoming relationship with their sperm donor/ dad. This turn of events has some queer viewers angry, or at least annoyed: they’re complaining that historically, way too many movies about lesbians end up with one of them sleeping with a man (and in many cases, being “cured” thereby). And they’re baffled as to why this movie — directed and co-written by a lesbian and so clearly created from a lesbian perspective — would perpetuate this tired old stereotype.
Sorry, but I’m not buying it. I’m usually happy to join a Celluloid Closet dogpile and rant at a movie for perpetuating stereotypes about queers. But in this case, I think it’s wildly inappropriate. For one thing, Jules sleeping with Paul isn’t portrayed as the lesbian being “cured” of her lesbianism. Not even a little. It’s portrayed as a freaking tragedy that comes close to demolishing a family. If anything, this movie gives a very queer twist on that old queer-bashing trope. Jules “experiments” with a man to fill a need she isn’t getting from her marriage — not a need for maleness, but a need for appreciation, and for spontaneity, and for a life whose parameters aren’t set by her hyper-organized, control-freak wife. But in the end, she turns her back on this disruptive influence, and begins working to repair her marriage and restore what she can of her normal, stable family life. A family life that, in this case, is lesbian.
And maybe more to the point: This movie isn’t about lesbians.
It’s about Nic and Jules.
I’ve been saying for years that what queer audiences (and straight ones, for that matter) need from queer movie characters isn’t positive role models. What we need is queer characters who are as human and complex and believable as the straight ones.
Which is exactly what “The Kids Are All Right” gives us. The creators of this film aren’t obligated to single-handedly correct every dumb stereotype about lesbians in the history of film. They’re obligated to present lesbians as real, plausible, multi-faceted human beings. Which is exactly what they did. There are a lot of things you can say about Jules sleeping with Paul: it was stupid, it was heartbreaking, it was understandable, it was fucked-up beyond belief. But it was also — and most importantly — entirely believable. There was no part of me that thought, “There’s no way she would do that.” In fact, I saw it coming a mile away. It was completely in character.
A flawed, powerful, sympathetic, aggravating, thoughtful, selfish, careless, loving, disturbing, funny, completely human character.
And when a film gives me that, I can’t ask for anything more.
I could go on about this movie for days. There’s so much here that’s fascinating and compelling — not just about queerness, but about sex generally — that I haven’t even touched on. I’m tempted to write a whole other review of it as soon as I finish this one: one that explores the naturalness with which this movie explores sex, and the balance it strikes between awkwardness and ease. I’d love to write a whole other review getting into Nic and Jules’ sex life: the vibrator in the nightstand, the gay male porn, the loving attempts to kindle passion and the stupid ways that perfectionism mucks it up. I’d love to write a whole other review getting into how uncomfortable Nic and Jules are with their son’s sexuality, teasing out how much of it is discomfort with straight maleness (a fact they’re in almost comic denial of), and how much is just parental discomfort with their kid’s sexuality and their sense of loss over him growing up. I’d love to write a whole other review getting into teenage sexuality: the teenagers who are overly confident and glib about sex, and the ones who are wigged out by it and trying to hold it at arm’s length. I’d love to write a whole other review about how this movie sees the power of sex: the power it has to blow things up, and the power it has to blow things open. I’d love to write a whole other review getting into how casual the characters try to be — and totally fail to be — about the word “sperm.”
But this review is already too long as it is. So I’ll leave it at this: This movie rocks. It is among the best I’ve seen this year, possibly this decade. It is one of the smartest, realest, most original, most compelling, and most human movies I’ve seen in a good long time. It is one of those movies you’ll be thinking about for days after you see it, and wanting to talk about with everyone you know. If you care about queerness, about sex, or just about seriously good films, stop whatever you’re doing, and immediately put it at the top of your To See list.
The Kids Are All Right. Starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, and Josh Hutcherson. Written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Focus Features. Rated R.