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I took a girl on our third date to see The Kids Are All Right. Because what other summer fare might make sense for a couple of reasonably young bisexual women than a breakout indie hit about lesbian motherhood, sperm donation, and a very raffish Mark Ruffalo?
Yes, for those (very few) of you who haven’t heard, The Kids Are All Right feature Ms. Bening and Ms. Moore as Nic and Jules, married parents of a girl named Joni and a boy named, improbably-if-this-wasn’t-California, Laser. The plot of the film charts the consequences of Joni and (sigh) Laser contacting Mark Ruffalo’s Paul, a restaurant owner who was the anonymous sperm donor for both children. (Each woman gave birth to one of the children, and somewhat predictably, OB/GYN Nic’s daughter is tightly-wound and high achieving while New-Agey Jules’ son is a slacker.)
I’m going to get to the consequences of that contact in a second. Because they are interesting, though maybe not the way they were intended to be.
First, let’s talk about the cast.
We are beyond, I hope, the idea that straight actors playing gay parts is somehow “courageous” or that they have a responsibility to play their characters in paradigmatic ways. The long-suffering closeted gay man or lesbian of good virtue overlooked have been retired from our cinematic vocabulary, for the most part — although their replacement by the gay man who takes up the Barbara Bel Geddes bitchy friend role, and the lesbian horndog busy with her home improvement projects (or even more groan-inducing, earth-mother devoted to her vegan cookbooks) may not exactly be a tremendous step up. Still, we seem to be emerging into a world where playing a gay part is no longer a big deal for a straight actor, and may even be seen as a feather in the cap, not because of “courage” or “empathy” but because it means that they are accepting in a groovy kind of way.
There are, however, a couple of dangers still lurking like U-boats beneath our waves of good intentions: and those are the erasure of Honest to Goodness Gay Actors, and a process I call the “Huffmanization Effect.”
This, of course, being a reference to Felicity Huffman’s performance in Transamerica. I bet at least some of my gentle readers are probably surprised to discover that I’m not an especially huge fan of Transamerica. “But C.L.,” my imaginary interlocutors might say, “it was a movie about trans acceptance! And Felicity Huffman was great! So…courageous. Oh.”
Yeah. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve loved Felicity Huffman since I saw reruns of Sports Night, and I’m glad that Desperate Housewives has made her enough money to build a guest home out of bricks of $100 bills; she is an actress of fierce intelligence, moral strength, and brilliant comic timing. And her Bree was a fucking disaster. I could list the cliches, mistakes, contrivances, and distortions, but that would would take a depressing length of time. (Well, okay, one: if I had a therapist tell me I had to make contact with someone I’d had no relationship with for 20 years, even if it was my kid, in order to transition, I’d have a new therapist within 24 hours and a letter would be on its way to the relevant Ethics Committee. The psych exam for transition isn’t to determine if I’ve fixed up all my emotional problems, just to determine if I’m capable of making an informed and rational choice. Or at least it should be; ask a transsexual sometime if you want to hear how much OMMV.)
And yet Bree was eaten up by critics and hell, even praised by some trans folks, because there was enough verisimilitude to real trans experiences (yeah, I had Andrea-This-Is-the-Voice-I-Want-To-Use James’ voice DVDs too) to make ignoring the brutal caricature almost palatable. Of course, they could have gotten past that by, say, using an actual trans actress in the part — why yes, they do exist! and no, RuPaul dose not count! — but then who would have given them money to make the movie, unless they, say, descended into brutal exploitation?
And that leads me back to my first point. I think it’s great that the movie got two actresses of the caliber of Bening and Moore, but…were Portia DiRossi and Cynthia Nixon unavailable? You know, two honest-to-goodness lesbians? (Perhaps the idea of the two of them making out was just too unbelievably hot. At least it is in the Cinema of My Mind.)
I know there’s a danger there — of pigeonholing gay actors into only playing gay parts — but then again, parts for gay folks (I won’t even bring up trans folks) are often hard to find, or only possible by playing straight (hello, Nathan Lane’s-early-career!) And so while I’m glad that a lesbian domestic comedy was made by a lesbian woman, it remains a sad commentary that the only way to get the movie made involved not having any lesbians in it.
And maybe a bit ironic. Because the central message of The Kids Are All Right seems to be one of normalization, perhaps an artistic extension of Harvey Milk’s dictum that “if they know us, they don’t vote against us,” a docu-drama argument against Proposition 8’s absurd premise that gay love is drastically different than straight love. Actually, argues Cholodenko in the movie, it’s just the opposite: they’re both fucked up in largely the same ways. Joni accuses her mother of using her to prove that a lesbian family can raise a child just as well as a straight family, and maybe she has, but not the way Joni is thinking of it. Nic has just as tangled a relationship with her teenaged children as any straight parent does, and about the same issues: Control, autonomy, respect, and the horrid fear that both of you are turning into your mothers.
I can’t close without talking about Mark Ruffalo, and not just because this is his best performance in a long time. His Paul is an immature man who seems to have drifted from situation to situation before coming to rest as the owner of an organic, localvore restaurant. Presented with what looks like a ready-made family, he soon insinuates himself into it. Maybe with some good intentions, but largely pursuing his own pleasure, the pleasure of stress-less parenting, and later, of Jules’ bed. And while I’m sure there is truth to that situation–lesbians do sometimes sleep with men, and bisexuals do exist (hello out there, world) — something rings a little oddly about their relationship. There’s something just a bit contrived, just a bit too plotty, just a bit too helpful to the marketing of the movie. The acrobatic sex scene between Moore and Ruffalo stands in rather marked contrast to the frustrating, under the covers scene between Bening and Moore; and while I get that one of the points here is about how any long-term relationship can fall victim to a rut, and maybe there’s even a sidelong glance at lesbian bed-death, still…something is odd.
What is good is the way the discovery of the affair plays out. There isn’t an explosive scene at the first dinner Paul gives at his house for his ersatz family; that takes place later, behind closed doors, the way most people (trust me on this one) deal with it. The family splits harshly against Jules, but then she was the person who betrayed the family; the mixture of love and loathing directed at her is touching, and even her big set speech at the end manages to not feel too contrived, but something people might actually say, down to the dying fall of “…and I hope that you can forgive me.” (Bening’s tearful reaction is also pitch perfect.)
At the end of the movie, Paul has been literally shut out of the family, the door slammed in his face, his children turning their backs on him. Forgiving reviewers in the New Yorker and the New York Times have pondered that maybe he was sinned against as well as sinning, A. O. Scott going as far to say that “the filmmakers forgive him even if the other characters cannot.” Well, maybe. But call me a Second-Waver and say that I’ve sold out and gone all Mary Daly on you (well, that’s unlikely), but I’m not so sure. After all, this is a family designed and predicated on not needing a father. They were doing just fine without one, at least in that they were no more screwed up than any other family, and his presence merely distorted and disrupted their relationships. (And indeed, not until he has been decisively excised does the healing between parents, spouses, and children begin.) Maybe it’s a rebuke to Prop 8 again, by pointing out that the biological parent can just end up screwing things up even worse; or maybe it points to the subversive idea that a familias can get by just fine even without a pater, and that proves a distraction to some viewers.
Both my date and I felt that the movie ended on a little too upbeat a note; we’ve both survived relationships involving betrayal, and sometimes there’s just no coming back from that. But maybe, like Agora, it’s not so bad to have a few myths of our own, a gay love story that ends just as falsely and soppily as any straight movie. Anyway, it will have to do, at least until Anna Paquin makes that bisexual movie we’re all waiting for. Especially if it stars John Barrowman.
[Yay, the kids DID turn out all right! Sort of! In the end! At any rate: If you love the TBD, and you want this sort of hot bisexual movie-reviewing action to continue, please do donate. Or, for an even sexier, less hassle-ish option, you can click this here subscribe button (click through, anybody?) to set up an automated payment! Imagine never clicking again. IN YOUR LIFE. What freedom! What ease! Wheeeee.]