With pitch-perfect performances by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right is by no means playing it straight.
Mums, The L-Word by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Fiction collides briefly with reality in Lisa Cholodenko’s mum squared family drama The Kids Are All Right. Rumbled with some gay man’s porn, mums Jules and Nic are defending the movie they sometimes watch to their curious and somewhat nosey son Laser, proselytising on buff bears in a skin flick rather than lipstick lesbians. As Jules waxes irate over two straight women playing it gay, Nic decides it’s time to end this metatextual awkwardness with an abrupt “That’s enough!” And hats off to Lisa Cholodenko for heading off authenticity sticklers at the pass. But how could anyone begrudge performances so sublime and queerly sensitive as those by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore? And when everything about celluloid sex is faked anyway, from sexual identity – squeezing the complexity of human sexuality into monochrome plot mechanics to the act itself with its moaning cutaways and strap-ons, surely there’s room for a little (fore-)play?
Lisa Cholodenko’s supersonic vault into the A-list is incredible. After a few directorial stints on TV (including The L Word) and feature films High Art and Laurel Canyon, two films about straight women who turn a little bit gay, The Kids Are All Right is swimming against the tide. And yet its story of two lesbian mums and a sperm donor is her most commercial film to date – no doubt due in part to her highly bankable indie collaboration with Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo. But like her earlier films, sexual fluidity and infidelity loom large, only this time all within the confines of a family drama.
It begins as eldest daughter Joni turns 18. And before she leaves home to start college at UCLA, she gives in to her brother Laser’s pleas to seek out their biological father. Cue Paul, their mums’ sperm donor and as it turns out, a hip and rather shabby chic biker. Just like his restaurant – What You See Is What You Get. An eco-hippy restaurateur and easygoing playboy, gracefully incorporated by Mark Ruffalo. College drop-out and rakish philanderer, it’s not long before he jettisons glamorous Amazon Tanya in favour of khaki-clad landscape gardener Jules, as she tends to more than just his flower beds. While some may not take kindly to this Sapphic craving for Littlejohn, Lisa Cholodenko has always been more about the fluidity of sexuality than its fixity. And while Nic is enraged by the double betrayal, not only is he a man but also their sperm donor – the two things she cannot be, Jules’s sidestep reaffirms her commitment to her family in a eyewellingly rousing speech on the sheer difficulty of marriage. And Paul, suddenly keen for an adult relationship and belatedly wise to the damage this one’s done, is left literally out in the LA cold.
Julianne Moore may get the grandstand speech, but it’s Annette Bening who runs away with the film with all her cranky side-glances, pained cold shoulders and jaded misanthropy. And it’s in the pitch-perfect relationship tics that The Kids Are All Right really shines. The women are perhaps too quickly shepherded into types – querulous breadwinning control-freak and pie-in-the-sky hippy dreamer, but the mums’ family reality, with all its familiar rancours and resurfacing conflicts, is portrayed with such intimacy, humour and authenticity that the plot glides along like a puck on ice. It’s aptly real when Nic clings to the remote control while ‘eating out’, sharply familiar as she runs a romantic bath for Jules only to be called away by a prenatal patient, and completely fitting that Jules’s infidelity with Paul is uncovered by something as grubbily prosaic as drain hair. Just as the fastidious Nic is warming to the interloper and his Joni Mitchell collection too.
Neither man-hating nor straight-washing, The Kids Are All Right walks a rocky road boldly – unapologetically queer, but at its heart a family movie. With Jules’s lonely, backbreaking nights on the sofa, or her desperate pleas to her children to understand the long, cruel, hard slog of marriage where a loving relationship unthinkingly gives way to motherhood, PE kits and lunchboxes, the film is universal. The kids are all right, moulded by two strong, nurturing women with no more neuroses than the rest of us. And there’s no father-shaped hole in their lives for Paul to fill. Beyond their initial curiosity, Joni and Laser bond with him over home-grown veg and basketball, but when he threatens this very nuclear family, he’s quickly and irredeemably dropped. With The Kids Are All Right Lisa Cholodenko has done the unthinkable and brought lesbians to the Hollywood mainstream. Let’s just hope it breaks the closet door on its way out.
The Kids Are All Right is released in the UK on 29th October 2010