originally posted on May 26, 2011
Warning: This review contains spoiler information about the plot of The Kids Are All Right.
There comes a point each year as I do my post-Oscar viewing of all the nominees when I start to wonder why they don’t narrow the category strictly to the deserving. After watching The Social Network, Black Swan, and The King’s Speech, I arrived at The Kids Are All Right and hit that point much sooner than expected.
The set-up–increasingly common in real life but still novel for film–has a married lesbian couple raising their two teenaged children in suburban California. The beats are all hit in perfect outline form: Son has a bad influence friend, daughter is an overachiever, couple has their issues with working too much and not working enough. In other words, they face all the issues the average family faces, until the kids decide to seek out daddy donor. Surprise: Mayhem ensues.
From the start, this script wasn’t compelling, and I was forewarned when there was a tired Scrabble scene (you know the type: “That’s not a word.” “Yes it is; it means [insert funny definition here].” I’m as big a Scrabble fan as anybody but this is old) early on. Nonetheless, I was intrigued by the question of what happens when children of donors–be they egg or sperm, children of straight or gay parents–become curious about their biological contributors. I was curious about the precise kind of mayhem the introduction of said donor into an established family would provoke.
Unfortunately, writer Lisa Cholodenko dropped the ball the minute she had Jules (Julianne Moore) sleep with the charming, if a bit free-spirited, donor dad Paul (Mark Ruffalo). How trite. Casting aside the fact that Jules is gay, that the marital problems that led to the cheat were telegraphed in the most cliched ways, that Nic (Annette Bening) says that Jules could not have chosen a worse way to hurt her then sets foot on the road to forgiveness with relative but feel-good ease, this is the weakest plot choice the writer could have made.
Why? Because before the cheat, the kids liked Paul. Jules (obviously) liked Paul. And Nic, who initially resented his interference, realized that maybe he was a good guy who cared about his kids; she decided a family dinner at his house was in order. After bonding with him over their shared love of Joni Mitchell’s Blue, she declared “I like this guy.” And then she excused herself to the bathroom. “Wonder what she’ll find?” I actually said aloud, then moments later shook my head as she randomly inspected the bathroom hairbrush and pulled out some long red hair.
To create conflict with this contrivance is to dismiss the very real conflict and the very real threat that would arise–and was arising–when a donor suddenly threatens the stability of a family and the security of the parents who feel that these children are without question theirs and theirs alone. What rights does the donor have? Is there value to having the donor involved with the children? What kinds of sacrifices do parents have to make to allow this involvement? How do the children feel?
In the flim’s penultimate scene, Nic throws out Paul and tells that he’s an interloper who should get a family of his own. But what Cholodenko failed to recognize to its most dramatic extent is that Paul was an interloper even before he slept with Jules. He was developing a relationship with his children, even influencing them in some positive directions. Having him sleep with Jules not only diminished his value but gave Nic a convenient reason to kick him to the curb–all without having to address the real conflicts inherent to this situation, without having to work through the truly painful issues.
If the writer’s intent was to show that gay marriage is just like any other marriage (though I question whether the average affair in gay marriage is with the opposite gender), she succeeded. We get it: They love, raise children, argue, cheat, forgive, and make up just like straight couples do, an idea I supported wholeheartedly before I saw this movie. But she missed the mark by failing to deliver on the organic conflict that she herself set up, which is a disservice both to her message and to her craft.