I’m a bit late to the party when it comes to The Kids Are All Right (2010), Lisa Cholodenko’s comedy of manners about a lesbian couple whose children seek out their sperm donor. It’s a droll movie that shades into painful drama with deceptive ease. It’s good. Very good. You should see it if you haven’t already. It’s a film that begs the question of why doesn’t Annette Bening have an Academy Award yet? All well and good. But it does raise some questions.
From my perspective, there are two elephants in the room in regards to this movie. First: For a decidedly queer movie from a queer filmmaker, there are surprisingly few queer people in front of the camera. As in none. Second: The plot twist that drives the second half of the movie, in which Julianne Moore’s character, Jules, has an affair with Paul, Mark Ruffalo’s character, is a cliché, and an obnoxious one at that. The movie actually does deal with both of these issues, but it’s debatable whether it deals with them successfully.
Taking them one at a time:
While I don’t demand that gay characters be played by gay actors, its galling to see an entirely straight cast playing gay characters in an era when Newsweek magazine is decrying the “fact” that gay actors can’t play straight characters (and why doesn’t this impediment flow the other way? Hmm?). The timing of the movie is unfortunate in this, and it’s compounded by the fact that Cholodenko is herself a lesbian and would presumably have no blinders on when it came to straightwashing the movie. It’s obvious that she’s aware of the problem because she comments on it directly in the text of the movie: When quizzed by their son about why they prefer gay male porn, Jules explains that in lesbian porn, the actresses are all played by straight women. “It’s so inauthentic,” she adds. This is probably the funniest line in the movie, given the casting, but it’s also kind of a bitter pill. On the other hand, the actors Cholodenko does have are so good that it suggests that there were no better choices available.
The second issue is more vexing, given the underlying patriarchal meme that all a lesbian needs to turn straight is a good fucking from the right man. Fortunately, this is demolished by the movie–Jules repudiates the idea that she is somehow straight and she repudiates Paul in the end, too–but should it have been raised in the first place? I don’t know. In the context of the movie, it does rise organically from this particular story and these particular characters. Jules is demonstrably having a mid-life crisis even before Paul shows up, and such people often do stupid things. This is compounded by the fact that some lesbian women actually DO occasionally have sex with men, even once they’re in touch with being lesbian, and this is NOT indicative of some latent heterosexuality (or even bisexuality), so the movie could claim some level of verisimilitude if it wanted. I just wonder if it couldn’t have explored Jules’s crisis in some other way. It might not have, given the film’s plot for Paul: he wants a family and he wants Jules and Nic’s family. This comes to a head when Nic rages at him that it’s HER family and he can bloody well go out and get his own. It’s a terrific moment, and it wouldn’t be possible without Jules’s dalliance with him.
In any event, it’s a lot to think about. Fortunately, the movie grounds all of this in a very closely observed depiction of Nic and Jules’s marriage, the details of which suggest that the movie as it actually plays probably could NOT have been made by a straight filmmaker. The way Jules and Nic behave with each other betrays too much knowledge of lesbian culture, from the therapy-speak they sometimes use to the details of their sex life together. The second funniest moment in the film comes when Nic pulls a big comforter over herself while Jules is goinq down on her: “I’m cold,” she says. “I’m suffocating!” Jules replies. Oh, and there’s the vague disappointment visible when they realize that their children are totally hetero. Mostly, though, it’s a celebration of marriage, and a timely one at that. It suggests that Jules and Nic’s marriage is exactly like anyone else’s marriage, which is to say that it’s like no one else’s marriage at all. Because no two marriages are alike.