I recently sat down this week to watch Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010). When this came out last summer I was not drawn to it even though it looked sunny and appealing and full of good actors. I cannot say why. Her first two movies were wonderful: High Art (1998) was beautifully shot, and Laurel Canyon (2002) had it all in its careful balance of solid performances, meditation and a stylized slice of California we rarely see. There was very much a question mark over the movie. I loved it. It was very rock n roll, but sad and loose, too.
So I settled down late night after work committed to maybe ½ of of a dvd viewing with a question mark of my own – I was very blasé. This is the story of a middle-aged lesbian couple, their two teen kids, and the appearance of their sperm donor dad. The movie of course charmed me all the way to the end: beautifully shot and as carefully served up as a gourmet homegrown meal. I felt so sunwashed watching it. LA looked beautiful. The film has an original tone to it. I imagined what it might be like to live there with some dough and a family. As I moved through the picture however things became further and further away…I had the unpleasant sense of watching Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in acting class together. I was very conscious that I did not remotely believe they were a couple, or even lesbians (especially Moore). I smelled this in the preview the summer before. I found myself only interested in the very straight dad character played by Mark Ruffalo and the two beautifully nuanced performances by the young teen actors. Julianne woke up around Ruffalo but went act-y around Bening in all of their scenes. Bening played it so butch and neurotic that I found myself unimmersed and annoyed every time she was onscreen (save the last she has with Ruffalo, which is dynamite). Both good actors but nervous if you ask me. Of course their tee shirts looked great. Very hip.
And this is exactly what has irked me about this much praised film – praised that is for being so cutting edge. It is a very wonderful style piece (the rhythm of the film is superb) by a wonderful director. But it ain’t gay – not even close. It is ruled by the same old scenerios – solidly straight, successful actors “stretching out”, aping gender roles (butch and femme), helplessly surrounded by all of the normal people (Ruffalo and the kids seeking a normal dad and role model) and trying to excuse themselves or defend themselves or whatever. This is the ground zero of banality. Like so many gay drag films before it (the wretchedly cast Tom Hanks in Philadelphia) I was squirming in my chair. So many of the notes the actors were trying to hit went flat; in a pivotal scene the couple has sex to gay male porn. This felt utterly false to me and completely sexless. Ah ha! Sexless. This same dvd is used as a device when their young son and his friend find it and watch it (assuming it is girl-on-girl action). The two moms interrogate him to see if he is a homo (which is of course WAY ok). The scene provoked a double response in me: the dull sitcom numbness watching a tired old scene play out (is there something you want to tell us?) and as I type this now some real outrage at what this suggests. Are lesbians not gay? Are they harmless and unthreatening? Why is the boy being questioned for finding their porn? Why are they watching male porn (because let me assure you they were not getting off on it)? I felt like this dvd, the device, was like a knife. It cut at the gayness in the film. And it pisses me off.
It is no secret that the Julianne Moore character humps Mark Ruffalo (who is seriously great in the film and will go unrewarded as the “sperm donor”). Their scenes together are absolutely alive, real and authentic. I was prepped to hate this very clichéd turning point in the film; how surprised I was to find it so real! Am I the homophobe? I don’t think so. What I think is that The Kids May Be All Right but the parents are the same old same old: dead, lifeless clichés wearing their gayness on their tee shirts. What is sad is that as usual the gay characters have no inner life and no real authenticity as a couple. The beautiful LA house they own is still a closet. The film is safe and predictable in its handling of the two most important characters. These women come alive only outside of their coupledom; gayness is thereby repudiated. The sun shines oh-so prettily. But it does not shine on them.