So, I finally saw The Kids Are All Right. Let me say first that Annette Bening is one of the most talented actors around. I have never seen her not be fabulous and mind-blowing. Ok. Now that that’s out of the way….
The movie. I liked it. But it also made me angry, and here’s why (this is your one spoiler alert, so if you haven’t seen the movie and want to, do with it what you will): I resent that Julianne Moore’s character, Jules, a monogamous lesbian with two kids, gets together with Mark Ruffalo’s Paul, the donor whose sperm helped create those two kids. I’m not angry because it’s such a huge betrayal to her kids (which it is) and her partner (which it is). I’m angry because Jules is a lesbian.
Now, before you start: I am not saying this couldn’t happen. I’m not even saying it doesn’t happen. What I’m saying is why can’t a lesbian just be a lesbian?
Filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko (my sister in kick-ass enko-ending Ukrainian surnames) plays a lot with the theme of sexuality in her work. She does it well in High Art and even better in Laurel Canyon, one of my very favorite movies ever of all time ever ever. (High Art addresses it in reverse of Kids, with an up-until-now straight woman falling for a lesbian photographer.) I get that sexuality is fluid, perhaps more so for women. (Whether that’s nature or nurture—or worse, simply because it’s what men prefer to watch—I couldn’t tell you.) I certainly get that people sometimes connect because of external factors—art in High Art, a life so unlike your own in Laurel Canyon and, apparently, literal possession of the seed that brought your children to life in Kids—and that can supersede what has until now been your orientation or taste.
In fact, when I told a few friends that the movie made me angry, they said it didn’t bother them, that it was clearly more about Jules’ connection to Paul through her kids than any actual sexual urge; it was, as she says, the fact that she keeps seeing her kids’ expressions on his face. My response to that is, um, ok, maybe. But when she stares at his package and moans ecstatically before they have sex for the first time, I’m pretty sure it’s not her kids she’s thinking of. I’m pretty sure she just really, really wants to fuck him. And that she does. Repeatedly.
There’s a moment right before Jules and Paul first kiss when they sort of hesitate. I felt relieved, like, “Oh thank god they didn’t go there.” But then they did. I was astonished—That’s what this movie is about? I drifted off for most of the rest of the film (I was won back at the end, due to a semi-satisfying resolution and the standout performances of Bening and Mia Wasikowska). But more than anything, I was mad.
Part of what makes me angry is that the addition of Ruffalo as a love interest makes a still-sort-of-alterna story more mainstream accessible, and it’s hard not to wonder if that’s intentional. These lesbians are somehow less scary because guess what—one of them actually likes sleeping with men! But really guess what: Just as not all of us straight women hook up with our female friends (sorry to burst your Girls Gone Wild bubble) not all lesbians want to screw men. (I mean, right? Can somebody please back me up on this?)
When Paul calls up Jules at the end with his whole, “C’mon, let’s do this, let’s run away together and be in love” thing, she barks, “I’m gay!” and then hangs up. “Um, yeah,” I thought. “But then, you know, you got really, really excited when you saw his junk, so like…are you? And if you’re not, can we explore that? Because that’s a movie I’d like to watch.”
As a writer, I don’t think filmmakers or artists or any of us are responsible for creating work that is politically correct or makes us feel all happy-gooey inside. The best art is complicated, subversive, challenging. (Ayelet Waldman’s now infamous piece on parenting and desire in the Times a few years ago fascinated me as a writer while repulsing me as a human; as the former, I absolutely support her right to say what she wants, even if I don’t necessarily, y’know, what to have dinner with her. Just an example. But I digress….)
Cholodenko’s only responsibility is to herself as a filmmaker. But to me, the twist felt like an inorganic deus ex machina moment. Maybe it’s a question of performance—I wasn’t as drawn into Julianne Moore’s character as Annette Bening’s. Her hippy-dippy persona felt removed and somewhat false; ultimately she just never felt as much a part of the family. Bening’s Nic was much more present for me. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s what makes what happens happen.
Anyway, there you go. I’ve trolled the internets to see if anyone else has had even a shade of this reaction to the movie (which, I iterate, I liked, just not as much as I wanted to). So far I’ve found one gay male friend who was flustered by the twist, and Cholodenko herself, not criticizing the choice but at least acknowledging it, in a New York Times piece about the film from earlier this year: “[Cholodenko is] aware that it is ‘politically incorrect,’ as she put it, to show a lesbian character caught up in a torrid heterosexual affair.”
So what do you think?