Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "The Kids Are All Right"

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

“Each of my moms had a kid, you know, with your sperm…”
-“No, I didn’t know.”
“Oh.”
-“Both of them?”

“Yeah.”
-“Like in two?”
“Uh huh. Like in gay.”
-“Oh. Right on. Right on! Yeah! Cool! I love lesbians!”

“Listen, when you’ve been a parent for 18 years, come talk to me.”
-“I was just making an observation.”
“Yeah? And I need your observations like I need a dick in my ass!”

If I were to include a third quote above, it would be “I’m not looking for a pat on the head”, which is something I said in 2012 by way of endorsing Referendum 74, a ballot initiative which had the effect of legalizing same-sex marriage in my home state of Washington – three years before the Supreme Court would rule in Obergefell v. Hodges that marriage is a right guaranteed to all Americans (including LGBTQ Americans) under the Constitution, and must therefore become legal for same-sex couples throughout the United States. And I’m really not. Looking for a pat on the head. Washington only narrowly approved the measure, with 46.3% of the state, 1.4 million voters, voting against it. My fellow citizens cast their gaze upon marriages such as the one in this film, between Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules Allgood (Julianne Moore) and said, “No, I won’t call that marriage, and I won’t call that family.” I’m relieved in retrospect that I never got a chance to vote on other people’s marriages before I was quite ready to treat them as deserving of the same rights as me. 2012 was the year I got married, and it was my own impending walk down the aisle that finally kicked me across the lazy libertarian line to say that if civil marriage is to be something that the government is involved in, then it needs to be available for everyone. A few years later, over a celebratory backyard scotch, a friend – himself in a long-term relationship – asked me why I’d gotten married, as opposed to just continuing with a long-term relationship. He and his girlfriend were willing to make such a commitment, but neither of them felt as if the designation would change anything. The punchline of this is that the two of them would end up marrying in secret and not telling the rest of us for months. To this day, he insists that I never sold him on it. But I sure did try. I yammered on for 20 minutes or so, offering variations on the same answer: “It’s institutional shorthand!” I could offer my insights on what I think marriage should be – a situation of confidence and trust, partnership, with mutual respect and support. As a practical matter, something that you’ll both have to work at with varying degrees of success for the rest of your life. A safe place.

But I was talking about what it is, to the rest of society, even if they know nothing about either of us. Shorthand. This. Is. My. Wife. She is the family I’ve chosen, and I am hers. Now give me her fucking prescriptions. Quote me for our next year of health insurance, oh wait, she has her own now, let me know how much I’ll save on health insurance. Let us file our taxes and manage our accounts. Call her if you can’t reach me and vice versa. Lemme change our broadband. Lemme consolidate our phone plans. Or let her. Depending which of us lost the coin flip. Let me know she’s okay. Tell me which room she’s in. Tell me what meds you’ve given her. Ship her my records. Ship her my effects. Tell her if I’m dying. Let her make choices for me, if I can’t make them for myself. Respect our personal, legal, and moral decision to belong to each other for the rest of our natural lives. And if it comes to it, let her claim and then decide where to scatter my ashes, or tell me where to do the same. I can’t tell anyone what marriage should be for themselves. Except, at minimum, a safe place. But marriage is a civil right guaranteed to all Americans precisely because we – the straight, white majority – afford it such power in our society. It makes everything smoother. Simpler. A common external rule set for all, even if the internal one may vary.

Still from "The Kids Are All Right"

The only feedback I can find from my first viewing of The Kids Are All Right was from early 2011, where I said the film “didn’t quite do it for me” by way of backhandedly praising Bening’s performance as Nic, and I felt like I enjoyed it more this time around, even if my reservations have only increased. At the very least, I’ve aged and married into a slightly richer appreciation of it, even if I’m not quite old enough to have much to say about parenting teenagers. What began at least in part as an instructional tool to coach the hetero crowd about how ordinary and non-threatening same-sex marriage between a pair of upper-middle-class white people can be (which is itself conceding a great deal of power to define “ordinary” as “what most closely resembles the majority”), in truth, the film always contained a measure of substance and insight about marriage in general, while also positing concerns that are unique to a family with two mothers and two biological children who are technically half-siblings with the same sperm-donor, with one carried by each mother. When Nic criticizes the flightiness of their 15-year-old boy Laser (Josh Hutcherson), Jules (who carried Laser in her womb) regards it as criticism of her personally. Both of these women are clearly loving parents to both children (at least until the events of this film), but it definitely comes through in both performances that these women can’t simply turn off their feelings, and there are clearly moments in which they each feel more protective of the child they personally carried. Which is…kinda fucked up! But the film seems aware of that, and Cholodenko’s willingness to engage with these sorts of feelings is a mark in favor of the film’s emotional honesty.

Enter bio-dad Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who indirectly furnished sperm to this family for sixty bucks a pop when he was 19, and had no idea these children existed until they reached out to him. Joni (Mia Wasikowska), who has just turned 18, only reaches out to the sperm bank because her brother (who is too young to legally make this request) begs her to do it. She doesn’t have any particular interest in meeting Paul, and is far more concerned about hurting their mothers’ feelings. Once the pair of them meet Paul, they basically flip positions. Joni finds herself charmed by Paul in spite of herself, and Laser thinks he’s a bit of a loser. Wasikowska and Hutcherson give fine performances here, but there’s not a lot of detail to these teenagers beyond the arc of their feelings for Paul, and I really don’t have much else to say about them. As for Paul, I think we’re initially just meant to find him a bit dopey (that is very much the vibe with his “I love lesbians!” quoted above). He is presented as a layabout who is somehow also running a successful organic foods restaurant and sportfucking with one of his employees. Tanya (Yaya DaCosta) isn’t an elaborate character, starting off as a comic foil to make sperm jokes with Paul between rounds of casual sex and even more casual restaurant bookkeeping, but she is 15 years younger, and also transparent about her desire to have a more serious relationship with him. I remain mixed on this subplot. The completely unexamined power dynamics of this boss-employee relationship notwithstanding, I think this character pretty much only exists to help Paul seem like a dope who was already kinda dopey prior to the events of the film. While he more or less confirms that judgment by turning down a woman willingly offering to make a family with him – the very thing he claims to want by the end of the film – it really does feel like putting a hat on a hat at that point.

So Paul and Jules have a fling. And if I might share another area of personal growth in the past decade, my mind is substantially less blown by the idea of lesbian women recreationally watching gay male pornography, or a lesbian woman having sex with a man and continuing to speak and think of herself as Kinsey-6 gay. People are what they are, and they do what they do, and the extent to which their behavior informs what labels they apply to themselves is both a product of their own decision-making and self-awareness, as well as a huge, heaping spoonful of societal pressure. In this film, real-life lesbian Lisa Cholodenko posits that, eh, this particular fictitious lesbian might decide to have sex with a man, but that’s less a byproduct of any identity-shattering change to her sexuality than of the dysfunction within her marriage and her simple desire to feel something outside of her wife’s web of control. That’s to say, the film posits that people in same-sex marriages cheat for the same reasons as people in heterosexual marriages, and the specific other [person] is less important, and by the way, human sexuality is fluid. I’ll admit, I think I’m reaching a bit in giving this film credit for self-awareness on the fluidity of human sexuality. I tend to give films credit for perceived good intentions – I even have fond memories of Chasing Amy, no matter how poorly that film and director Kevin Smith‘s contemporaneous explanations of it have aged. And yet, such stories exist in a world in which gay conversion therapy is a very real (pseudo-scientific) thing that has resulted in very real harm to thousands of children, which makes the legacy of films that suggest, but do not say anything terribly specific or insightful about, the fluidity of sexuality (which tends to most frequently come in the form of men “curing” women of their silly lack of attraction to men) rather tricky to evaluate.

This is what makes representation such a double-edged sword. I do believe that a film featuring a same-sex couple raising two happy and healthy and relatively well-adjusted children – even amid their own mistakes – will gradually help society acclimate to the existence of such families, and gradually expand their mental picture of what a family can look like. And yet, it is also true that any attempt to over-universalize depictions of a minority group will run the risk of stereotyping and maintaining a limited understanding of them, and reinforcing blind spots that the film either lacks the time or inclination to address. Which leaves the poor hapless critic, seeing yet another underrepresented group finally represented in film, shooting their privileged mouth off with the memory and context of a goldfish when it comes to evaluating the authenticity of such depictions, and forgetting their prior praise just as quickly whenever the next one comes out, whether it really manages to push some new boundary or not.

Professor Suzanna Danuta Walters discusses this film at some length in her 2014 book, The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality. After appropriately excoriating mainstream critics for their tendency to universalize the film’s characters, she offers this withering feedback:

“No, my problem is much more with the reliance on universality, which entails—almost always—a de-gaying of gayness, which gets to the heart of the tolerance trap. This tolerant de-gaying relies on stereotyped gender paradigms so that the women are depicted as—really—just like our neighbors down the street, where daddy goes out to work and mommy stays at home. Lesbian culture and lesbian friends are invisible, and the film erases the extended queer kinship networks that most of us do construct out of both need and desire. This last issue remains—for me at least—the most persistently troubling. If invisibility and sad stereotypes were the problems of the past, then a new glib tokenism and erasure of community seem to be the signs of the difficult present. Gayness is the motivation for these plots, but is emptied of any specific (gay) meaning. Instead, these stories offer up a liberal universalism that acts as a cultural pat on the back for tolerant heterosexuals and an accepting hug for assimilated gays.”

I don’t have a good answer for this, except that Walters isn’t wrong. As someone who has built a family over the last decade, I can speak to how I identify with Nic when she calls Paul a “fucking interloper”, and tells him to go out and make his own family. But I can’t speak to whether that desire to assert control and possession over one’s family, a societally coded trait of traditional masculinity, is A) something that the film regards as essential even in a household run by lesbian women, and B) is a position that the film is advocating for as a positive good, or is simply presenting as the capstone of Nic’s most persistent character flaws throughout the film: her desire to control every situation even when her family is warily eyeing each other like, “Mom, you’re doing it again.” To attempt to answer this question makes me feel, frankly, like a fucking interloper. But one thing I have learned in the past decade is that as film critics, we need to do better than just, “This story made me feel feelings, and also made me realize that people who lead different lives from me also feel feelings.” I can express at some length what marriage and family mean to me, and attempted to do so above. I can try to both reinforce and challenge those beliefs in the culture that I consume, and I did find some of that to latch onto while watching The Kids Are All Right. But if I really, truly want to know how a community feels about the quality of their limited representation in media, that’s not a question I should need to open my mouth too wide or too frequently to answer.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #118 – “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” (dir. Matthew Vaughn)

Poster for "Kingsman: The Golden Circle"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel dive into a second chapter in a silly spy saga that doubles down on every one of the first film’s impulses, for weal or woe: the elegant masculine paradigm, the awesomely kinetic and well-shot fights, the ridiculous Dr. Evil-caliber villainy, and the shoddy, one-dimensional female characters saddled with menial tasks in place of depth. Come see where we landed on the only spy film this year that is, and we quote, “Longer than f*cking Dunkirk“. (38:12).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the tracks “My Generation (“Battle Royale” Remix)” by The Who, as remixed by Apashe, from the film’s second trailer. We might’ve used “My Way“, but that vile fuckhead Joe Arpaio has forever sullied it for us.

Listen above, or download: Kingsman: The Golden Circle (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

2010 Glennies, Part 4: Best Actress

#5: Annette Bening – Nic, The Kids Are All Right

This film didn’t quite do it for me, and reminded me that I sometimes have to catch myself from thinking that the best performances of the year will invariably fall within the best films. But while Lisa Cholodenko’s sex comedy/family drama was not without its flaws (particularly in the second half), Annette Bening’s performance as the conservative “patriarch” of this surprisingly* conventional family was immaculate. She completely sold her ever-changing reactions to the introduction of her kids’ birth-father (Mark Ruffalo), treating him first like a looming threat to her primacy, then laughing and drinking wine with him and the family. This is a completely authentic character, and Bening’s delivery of dramatic outbursts and comedic barbs alike was spot-on. Her chemistry with Julianne Moore felt mostly believable – it had a kind of comfort and ease, just like an old married couple.

She also completely nails the best two lines in the film, which I won’t spoil here.

*By the standards of quirky indie film, that is.

#4: Carey Mulligan – Kathy, Never Let Me Go

I’ve seen Carey Mulligan play cheerful, but I’ve seen her play somber much more frequently. While I may eventually reach a point of wanting to see a wider range from this actress, I found every dour moment of her screentime in Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go to be completely compelling. This film relied heavily on tone, and Mulligan’s performance and chemistry with her fellow leads (Keira Knightley in particular) helped maintain the film’s bleak and somber atmosphere without ever letting the audience lose emotional touch with the characters. These are wretched and pitiable creatures, and it is Mulligan’s heart and compassion that keeps the audience caring for them right to the end.

#3: Hailee Steinfeld – Mattie Ross, True Grit

An early scene in True Grit features Mattie Ross in hardball negotiations with a stable owner over her late father’s horses. Her unrelenting performance amid rapid-fire dialogue in this scene would have been enough to get 13-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld a supporting nod from me, but the Academy be damned – this is unquestionably a lead performance. Steinfeld is in every scene of True Grit, and the film could not have succeeded without such a mature and charismatic take on this character. Mattie Ross is articulate, intimidating, and a bit of a gadfly, and has to keep up with powerful characters three times her age without ever overstaying her welcome with the audience. It’s a tall order, but Steinfeld completely pulls it off. Her rapport with Jeff Bridges was admirable, treading some fascinating ground between road-trip comedy and an intense father-daughter bond. This film is a delight, and it owes much of its appeal to Steinfeld.

#2: Natalie Portman – Nina Sayers, Black Swan

The effectiveness of Nina Sayers is in both her initial state- the pure and fragile “sweet girl”- and her incredible mental and physical transformation. Natalie Portman not only sold both aspects of the character, but fearlessly committed to all the pain and revulsion – bordering on body horror – that she must experience. Portman’s chemistry and frightful interactions with her fellow players (Barbara Hershey in particular) become increasingly fascinating as Nina descends into full-blown schizophrenic madness. Along with Aronofsky’s direction, this was a performance that would make or break the film, occasionally even compensating for deficits in the screenwriting.

“I’M the Swan Queen!” screams Nina as she embarks on the film’s final performance. And indeed she is. Embodying both the white and black swans, Portman’s performance is complete and unmatched.

#1: Kim Hye-ja – Mother, Mother

It is a rare movie tagline that so adequately captures the tone of a film. For Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother, it was this: “She’ll stop at nothing.” Simple and straight to the point. Kim Hye-ja, an actress primarily from Korean television, gives a tour de force performance as the unnamed titular matriarch. Every one of her character beats rang completely true, from her constant worry about her mentally disabled adult son (Won Bin) to her utter desperation to clear his name for murder. She goes to some alarming lengths as the film goes on, and Kim’s performance completely sold each one of her increasingly heartbreaking decisions. The gorgeous opening scene features Kim breaking into an uneasy dance in the middle of the field, with a very pained expression in her face and body language. The full meaning of this scene becomes apparent later in the film, but from the outset, it is clear that Kim Hye-Ja can convey a great deal of emotion in completely unspoken terms. This is a character that the audience wants the best for at all times, no matter what she becomes.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Jennifer Lawrence as Ree in Winter’s Bone
  • Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • Emma Stone as Olive Pendergast in Easy A
  • Marisa Tomei as Molly in Cyrus
  • Julianne Moore as Jules in The Kids Are All Right (Honorable, honorable mention: as Catherine Stewart in Chloe)

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.

Atom Egoyan’s “Chloe” – An odd bit of erotica

Two seconds. That’s how long it takes for Amanda Seyfried’s breasts to appear in this film, and as she begins a wistful voiceover about what it means to be a prostitute, it is with this first artfully lit shot that Atom Egoyan’s Chloe (a remake of a 2003 French film) presents itself with decidedly European sensibilities. But while the Europeans might decry my American puritanical sexualization of the female breast, I must confess that this shot (and many similar ones that followed) put me somewhat on guard. There are few things that take me out of a film faster than the feeling that I’m being manipulated by the screen. If this were a film about gargantuan fighting robots, I could certainly ignore the feeling, but Chloe strives for a good deal more. As it went on, I was forced to decide whether I was watching a thoughtful and emotionally complex exploration of sexual obsession and jealousy or being titillated just for the sake of it.

The premise is certainly a provocative one. The Stewarts are a pair of well-off professionals whose marriage is gradually drifting apart – David (Liam Neeson), a college professor, is friendly and semi-flirtatious with every woman he meets, and his wife Catherine (Julianne Moore), a doctor, is becoming increasingly insecure and jealous. From the outset, we are as much in the dark as Catherine about her husband, as she becomes more and more suspicious that he’s cheating on her. She finds a friend and confidante in an escort named Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), whom she hires to try and seduce David.

“I usually meet the client directly,” starts Chloe.

“I’M the client” declares Catherine.

And indeed, nearly all we see from this point on is through the interactions between these two women. As Chloe recounts her various encounters with David, Catherine insists she spare no detail. These graphic recollections are nothing new in cinema (they reminded me a great deal of Mike Nichols’ 2004 film Closer), but they still rang true for me. They spoke to the secret shame shared by private detectives and their cuckholded clients alike – when you’ve been betrayed by someone you love, you want to know every last disgusting detail.

It is this obsession that the film and its actors convey so effectively. The plot takes a number of rather predictable twists, but I really can’t fault it for this. As Catherine watches the destruction of her marriage, she gradually realizes that it may be her own mistrust and jealousy that precipitated its end. By the final act, the film only seems predictable in the sense of people being reliably self-destructive, and Julianne Moore proves to be the tragic heart of this film, turning in a performance that is both fearless and believable.

But what an enigma is Amanda Seyfried… This is an actress whose work I’ve nearly always enjoyed, who often elevates lesser films with her performances. But for the first half of this film, her line delivery is nearly as flat and devoid of character as porn star Sasha Grey in Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. As she recounted the vagaries of life as a high-class call-girl, I just didn’t buy it. And while her performance certainly improves in the second half, it’s balanced out by some rather preposterous character twists (for which I place equal blame on the screenwriter).

This is certainly an ambitious film, and its successes manage to stay a bit more interesting than its failures. The film looks great, featuring some gorgeous cinematography from DP Paul Sarossy. It delivers a fantastic performance from Moore and solid supporting work from Neeson. And perhaps most importantly, despite the absurd lengths the film goes to in order to destroy its characters, it delivers a few remarkable relationship insights. I have to think that if only something had elevated the character of Chloe, I wouldn’t have been left to ponder whether this film is exploitative or gratuitous. The film strives for something like Closer but becomes something more akin to Heartbreakers. The result is something worse than one, but better than the other, and fascinating nonetheless.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10