The Kids Are All Right
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The Kids Are All Right is based on a formula we've seen many times before. After about 20 years of living under the same roof, the wear and tear of family life has taken its toll on two parents. Until now, they've been devoted to each other and to their children. But festering insecurities are getting worse—and everyone is suffering for it. So when a suave interloper upsets the status quo, it's only a matter of time before the family life they've nurtured is shattered.
Writer/director Lisa Cholodenko takes this familiar narrative and twists it … twice. Twist No. 1: The couple in question isn't a husband and wife, but two women who've been together nearly two decades. Twist No. 2: The man who disrupts their familial stability is the sperm donor who "fathered" their children.
Nic and Jules are a case study in opposites. Nic is a no-nonsense disciplinarian whose job as a doctor puts food on the table. Jules is a sensitive, touchy-feely free spirit with dreams of launching a landscaping business. If opposites initially attract, however, in time they can annoy, too—a fact Nic and Jules now know all too well.
As for their two children, each reflects his or her respective mother's personality. Nic's 18-year-old daughter, Joni, is a conscientious, straight-A student on her way to a top-flight university. Jules' 15-year-old son, Laser, is a bit of a drifter who's been sucked into the orbit of an antisocial miscreant from school.
Perhaps driven by a desire for a father figure, Laser talks Joni into contacting their sperm-donor dad. Enter Paul, a swarthy thirtysomething restaurant owner with a penchant for creative cuisine, fine wine and casual sex.
The kids definitely won't be all right by the time this plays out.
There are some positive lessons bouncing around in this morally and philosophically messy movie. But it's so messy that even beginning to mine those messages requires a disclaimer: Since the plot pivots on the unstated assumption that a long-term relationship between two same-sex partners is both normative and acceptable, any positivity surrounding that assumption has to be divorced from it.
Jules and Nic work hard to communicate with their two teens. When Laser starts acting strangely, they ponder what the source of his new moodiness might be, and they eventually urge him to tell the truth. (He's been nervous about confessing that he and Joni contacted Paul.) Jules and Nic are also concerned that Laser's friend Clay is a bad influence (and they're right in that regard). Nic, especially, is big on boundaries and accepting appropriate responsibilities—mandating that Joni, for instance, write thank-you notes for graduation presents she received. Another good family rule: no cell phones at dinner.
We also see, however, the consequences of Nic's sometimes overbearing desire to be in control. Joni confronts her at one point and suggests that Nic was driven by a desire to have "the perfect lesbian family."
The film also illustrates how relational intimacy between two people can be compromised. (Nic's increasing coolness toward Jules, the film argues, makes Jules susceptible to Paul's advances.) And then it shows the resulting fallout. After Jules' affair with Paul is uncovered, she issues a tear-drenched apology and asks for forgiveness from Nic and their children. She describes marriage as a "marathon" during which one partner or the other may make terrible choices—but she takes full responsibility for the ones she's made.
As he gets to know the two children who carry his genes, Paul begins feeling something like a desire to be a real father to them. He spends time with them and tries to say the right things them. In this sense, fatherhood is presented as something worth aspiring to.
That said, Paul is utterly unable to see that his affair with Jules makes him unfit to remain in their world. When he shows up to try to talk with them after the affair is uncovered, Nic rightly calls him an "interloper."
Insofar as the structure of the family unit is ordained by God, and marriage between a man and a woman is a sacred covenant conceived by Him, The Kids Are All Right disregards His directives.
Jules' interactions are often sprinkled with pseudo-spiritual sayings expressing her belief in positive thinking and self-actualization.
"We can't be doing this," Jules tells Paul. "I'm married, with kids." But that doesn't stop her from plunging headlong into their torrid affair—which is shown in graphic detail. Explicit sexual positions and forceful movements get full coverage here—more than once. (Full-frontal nudity is barely avoided.) A bath scene includes breast nudity.
Paul has sex with an employee in yet another frank scene that features both of their naked torsos and shows sexual movements from the side. Under the covers, Jules does sexual things to Nic (we see movements and hear a vibrator) as they watch a pornographic film featuring two men engaging in oral and anal sex.
Later, Laser and Clay go through the women's dresser drawers and discover a sex toy … and the video, which they proceed to watch. (The camera does too, introducing more sexual movements and snippets of nudity onto the screen.) When Jules and Nic walk in on them, the four proceed to have an incredibly uninhibited and inappropriate discussion in which Jules tries to help her 15-year-old son understand why some lesbians want to see aroused men. Nic and Jules also speculate about whether Laser is exploring same-sex relationships, a choice they support.
More raw, f-word-laced dialogue arrives when Nic confronts Jules with her suspicion that she's been sleeping with Paul. And when Jules' landscaping employee figures out what's happening between her and Paul, she fires him.
A friend of Joni's sexualizes everything and repeatedly wonders why Joni hasn't yet had sex with a close male friend. Joni eventually gets drunk at a party and gives him a long kiss. We also see Jules and Nic in bed together and/or kissing multiple times.
Laser videotapes his friend Clay skateboarding off a roof—and crashing down hard. Later, the two trade punches in a brief altercation after Clay unzips his pants and threatens to urinate on a dog.
Crude or Profane Language
At least 30 f-words and 15 s-words. God's name is abused about 15 times as well, while Jesus' is misused four or five times. Vulgar and obscene terms are used for both the male and female anatomy. About a dozen other (milder) expletives pepper the dialogue too.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Clay and Laser snort powder from a pill they crush.
Nic has a penchant for wine, and when she's stressed out, nervous or angry, she just keeps pouring glasses for herself. In one scene, Nic's obvious drunkenness leads to an angry outburst in public. At a party, Joni gets very drunk.
Other Negative Elements
Clay and Laser ride through town on skateboards, tipping over people's garbage cans as they go. Jules falsely accuses her gardener of having a drug addiction to justify firing him.
Often when filmmakers or television producers go out of their way to inject homosexual themes into their stories, it's in the subversive service of undermining or mocking what are derisively labeled "family values." The Kids Are All Right, which was one of the biggest hits at 2010's Sundance Film Festival, turns that approach on its head.
Instead of depicting a lesbian relationship as the apogee of rebellious edginess, or as the vanguard of liberal social progress, Lisa Cholodenko presents a story of two "married" women as if that's the most natural, unremarkable thing in the world. The film never so much as hints that such an arrangement is anything out of the ordinary. In that respect, The Kids Are All Right has a radically different feel than other controversial gay-themed films such as Brokeback Mountain or even I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry.
Far from launching a frontal fusillade against the idea of the traditional family, Cholodenko (herself a lesbian mother in a long-term relationship) ultimately affirms the importance and integrity of close family relationships.
But don't think for a second that the result isn't still an attack on family values. In his Salon review, Andrew O'Hehir says, "[The Kids Are All Right] explores questions of marital fidelity and adultery in a mode that family-values conservatives could almost embrace. If it weren't, that is, for the hot, hilarious and/or illicit sex scenes of various flavors. … In depicting a lesbian marriage that's about as traditional as a marriage gets—right down to the drinking, the squabbling, the cheating and the profoundly embarrassing moments in front of the kids—Cholodenko has arguably made a more revolutionary and transgressive film than you'd see in a dozen queer-cinema festivals in lower Manhattan or the Castro District."
Newsweek takes a slightly different but equally revealing tack when Jennie Yabroff shakes her head at the incongruity of what she calls a "trailer trash" subject getting the full art-film treatment. "Shows like Jerry Springer trade on exploitation," she writes, "while films like The Kids Are All Right are about exploration, and perhaps that difference is what makes one art and the other entertainment. But let's not pretend that the subject matter, whether set to Joni Mitchell or onstage in front of an angry mob shouting, 'She's! A! Dude!,' is not, at heart, the same."
No one needs to be exposed to images of lesbian women having sex while watching gay porn in order to understand that families matter. No one needs to watch a lecherous man have rowdy sex with his lesbian conquest to figure out that infidelity is a sin. No one needs to listen to parents hurling obscenities at each other (when that affair surfaces) to grasp the important role honesty and forgiveness play in lifelong love.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Julianne Moore as Jules; Annette Bening as Nic; Mark Ruffalo as Paul; Mia Wasikowska as Joni; Josh Hutcherson as Laser; Eddie Hassell as Clay; Zosia Mamet as Sasha
Lisa Cholodenko ( )
July 9, 2010
November 16, 2010