Pop Theology contributor Richard Lindsay and I were talking about reviews of mainstream films that feature gay and lesbian couples in lead roles and how reviewers often argue that these films aren’t about homosexuality or homsexuals but rather about human beings. These reviews clearly hope to allay potential viewers’ fears about these films being “too gay.” Their emphasis on the humanness of their gay or lesbian characters is somewhat condescending in the process. So I’ll say this straight away, The Kids are All Right is about lesbians. There, I said it.
The Kids are All Right (written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko) tells the story of Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), a lesbian couple with two teenage children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Joni is about to go away to college, and Laser wastes away the summer days goofing off with his best friend. In fact, these might be two of the most fully realized teenagers in recent film. Laser eventually decides that he wants to find out the identity of the donor whose sperm his moms used. Because he isn’t 18, he has Joni make the call to the agency, and soon after, they are united with Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a hip gardener/restaraunt owner, who soon develops a friendly relationship with them. When their moms find out, Julie accepts their desire to connect with Paul, while Nic, on the other hand, feels like he is invading their family and taking away what little time she has left with Joni before she moves off to college. Ironically, Nic fails to see that her obsession with work and the demands she places on her family put a wedge between her and the rest of the family that is potentially far more damaging. A struggling businesswoman who starts up a landscaping company, Julie goes to work for Paul, and their relationship quickly becomes something more than professional, which sends this idyllic family into a tailspin.
Again, Nic and Julie’s marriage is at the center of this film along with all of the ups, downs, and difficulties they face, some of which may be familiar to everyone who has ever been in a long-term relationship and some of which won’t. There is no mention of any homophobia that they may have faced in their paths towards and with each other, although Laser’s friend constantly calling him a faggot reveals something of the wider environment in which this family exists. They do face a host of questions about their relationship from their children, the likes of which most straight couples will never have to answer. Laser asks them why they watch gay male porn…as if he and is friends have never watched two women getting it on online. On the other hand, when they first meet Paul and tell him how they met provides one of the film’s funniest scenes and, perhaps, one of the funniest moments in film this year.
Laser’s question for his moms leads us to another point of the film. Along the way, if we look a bit closer, we see the theme of sexuality, in general, as an undercurrent in the film. Certainly Nic and Julie represent one aspect of that; however, Joni, her best friend Sasha (Zosia Mamet), Laser, and Paul do as well. Sasha is a hypersexual teenage girl who reminds me more of the over-sexualized teen boys of the American Pie type that we most often find in popular films. Everything is about sex for her, and this frustrates Joni who is much more conservative in her conversations about and approaches to sexuality. Laser has a close guy friend, whom Nic and Julie distrust, but expresses little interest in the opposite sex, which leads his moms to wonder if he is in fact gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Finally, Mark is a too-cool-for-school hipster who enjoys casual sex with a co-worker but begins to want more out of life through his new-found relationship with Joni, Laser, and the moms. The film also problematizes most people’s dichotomous conceptions of gay and straight in ways that will no doubt lead to some interesting conversations.
The film provides a true-to-life vision of marriage, be it gay, straight, or otherwise. The Kids are All Right revels in the day-to-dayness of marriage in ways that few other films do. The fights and complications that arise along the way don’t often happen over one huge issue (although this does occur in the film), but are more often than not the result of a distance that emerges between two people who are caught up in work, child rearing, and other time-consuming activities. Julie gives an incredibly down-to-earth, impassioned speech about marriage and the pitfalls that await two people who want to enter into that type of relationship or a long term commitment with one another.
With pitch-perfect performances from everyone involved, especially Bening and Moore, The Kids are All Right is another great film that would stand out even if this wasn’t a particularly weak year. At 104 mins., it’s rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some teen drug and alcohol use.