Sunday, July 25, 2010

Father (figure) Knows Best?

The surprising traditionalism at the heart of a new movie about a non-traditional family

In the beautifully acted ensemble piece The Kids Are All Right, Annette Bening plays Nic, the breadwinning doctor in a lesbian family of four that includes her spouse Jules (Julianne Moore), an 18 year-old daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska), and a 15 year-old son Laser (Josh Hutcherson). In interactions that alternate between bickering and affection, we are to understand them as a normal -- i.e. neurotic, but stable -- family. The complicating factor in their lives occurs when the children reach out to their sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who turns out to be a genial fellow; his reaction to the family arrangement -- "I love lesbians!" -- has already become a signature line of the movie. Though it's immediately apparent that Paul has no real commitment to anything except the restaurant that he owns, he has something emotionally to offer each of the characters in the movie except Nic, whose growing resentment of Paul results in growing estrangement from the rest of her family.

From the start, it's clear that Nic's character is the least attractive in the movie: controlling, arrogant, and passive aggressive when not overtly so. Yet it's also clear that she's really the only adult in the story. Joni (as in Joni Mitchell -- there's a wonderful scene of Bening singing lines from Blue by way of explaining her daughter's name) is bright, responsible, and increasingly self-assertive, not surprising as the story takes place in the summer before she goes off to college. Laser is less mature, involved with a friend who's clearly not worthy of him, a subplot of the story. Jules, the more instinctive and permissive of the parents, is a very appealing person to all involved  -- audience included -- though her insecurity and impulsivity brings the family into crisis when she accepts Paul's casual offer to help her resume a career in landscape gardening, a development that serves to bring the class dimension of the story into focus in the two characters' stance toward the hired (Latino) help.

One of the more surprising aspects of The Kids Are All Right are its gender politics. Ostensibly, it has a liberal moral that verges on smugness: We're going to show you that homosexuals are just like everybody else. But the movie has a surprisingly conservative message: families need father figures. In this case, it so happens that the "father" is a woman (the man in the picture is ultimately a boy). Yes, of course, Nic is difficult. But the rules she sets and concerns she has are largely valid, and her economic role is almost surely indispensable, whether or not the family would have been better off with two-incomes (an issue for the couple). More than any of the other characters, Nic is self-aware about her limitations and makes active efforts to remedy them. She also proves to be stoic, a characteristic that seems in relatively short supply in movies these days, just like it appears to be everywhere else. None of these traits are inherently male, but they're coded in the movie as such -- nowhere more so than when Nic finally intervenes to set a boundary by slamming a door -- as indeed they are in society at large. But in the end it's less important that they're there in gender terms than on family ones.

Indeed, Nic can't claim all the credit here. Jules clearly has a shaping hand in raising the kids, who are, as the title indicates, "all right." Which points to another element of traditionalism in the gender politics of the film: an assertion on behalf of the two-parent family. Each provides ballast for the other's excesses, which a child may need as much as any particular trait a parent has to offer. While this particular deck happens to be stacked a particular way -- "I really wish you were gay," an exasperated Jules tells Laser at one point. "You'd be so much more sensitive" --we also see two parents working hard to give a child roots and wings.

Insofar as the messages here are effective, it's because in the end they're delivered with a light touch. Fair-minded, funny, and deftly executed, The Kids Are All Right represents an honest attempt to capture both continuity and change in the American bourgeois family of the 21st century.