The Kids Are (mostly) All Right
Glutton for punishment here, twice bitten, but still writing about the popular cinema. This time it's The Kids are All Right (not to be confused with the 1979 rockumentary on the Who, of the same title).
The great American modernist poet William Carlos Williams said that the job of the artist is to move the century forward an inch or two. I thought of that while watching this film.
This movie marks an important moment, perhaps a major milestone for Hollywood. It was directed by a woman, Lisa Cholodenko (a rare occurrence in Tinseltown); it stars two actresses, Annette Bening, and Julianne Moore, who are not twenty-something Barbie dolls (it's a truism that there are almost no leading roles in Hollywood for women over a certain age); but most significantly, it's a love story about lesbians.
Artist Dan Graham has noted that one of the ways by which bourgeois society perpetuates itself is by deflecting the conflicts felt by the citizens into little dramas, spectacles of crises that play out and then resolve in the status quo, thus discharging by proxy the energy of the real conflicts suffered by the mass of the citizens, and demonstrating that the given social model is, after all, the right one.
The great French theorist Roland Barthes said that the privileged minority perpetuate their dominance by endlessly purveying the idea that their way of living and thinking is the normal and correct way, that they are, in fact, the majority. The example he gives of the lower classes buying this is the young typist in the secretarial pool who quite naturally expects the splendor of a bourgeois wedding.
In America this is especially so -- "rich" is normal. All the norms come from the upper echelons, as if we all possess the million-dollar home in California, the luxury cars, and the excess of leisure to work out the petty dramas and minor annoyances that disturb our otherwise blissful existences.
Author/director Cholodenko's film presents a family that is normal in almost every way. The only deviation from the bourgeois norm is that the couple are both women. Their kids came to them, one each, via the same anonymous sperm donor. One partner is a professional, a medical specialist, who provides ample income for the household. This is the masculine role, and there are various behavioral and sartorial signs that Nic (Bening) is the "butch" element in the dyad. The other partner, Jules (Moore) is the "femme" side -- long hair in contrast to Nic's cropped do, more feminine clothing, a softer manner. The two kids, one girl one boy, provide the anchor for the drama.
In discussing how societies maintain themselves and change over time, the anthropologist Victor Turner writes of "social dramas" -- scenarios in which there is a breach (a rule is broken), a crisis, and then either redress (return to status quo) or schism (some new style of being splits off from the mainstream). Norms are so over-determined, says Turner, that after the dramatic crisis, things tend to snap back into place, but not always. Sometimes they go back to not-quite the same place. This is Turner's theory of social change.
The breach phase of the film's social drama comes when the older child hits 18 and is then qualified, under California law, to inquire about her biological father, sperm-donor Paul (played by Mark Ruffalo), and then contacts him and introduces him to "the moms." This brings about the crisis that drives the narrative.
You could say the movie is an essay in favor of same-sex marriage. But, as with most progressive ideas when they make the big time, it's two steps forward, one step back. For instance, we get viable lesbian parenting, but you can't do lesbians for the American mainstream without featuring a penis. Several are featured here, just to keep the heterosexual imperative in view. The leading penis belongs to Paul, and when Jules first encounters it, while hungrily tearing at Paul's jeans ("well, helllllo!"), the moment is a bone (ok, bad pun) tossed to the hackneyed idea that lesbianism is a kind of make-do position -- she's not really queer, she just hasn't met the right penis yet. Or, to use the cruder, more conventional cliché, what she really needs is a good . . . well, you get the idea. And she gets it too, forward, backward, every which way. It's beautifully acted and very funny, but it's stereotypical to the max.
Still, the engine of narrative is conflict, and having an attractive, charming if klutzy single guy show up in a lesbian dyad is a great device for that.
There's also a class element to the conflict. Paul is a down-to-earth small business owner. He runs an eatery. He doesn't shave very often. He rides a motorcycle. He never did get into that college thing, and he's not very articulate. His chief antagonist, Jules's partner Nic, is some sort of highfalutin MD (hints are she's a gynecologic surgeon). And she has the self-assurance and subtle arrogance that often comes with old money. Jules is somewhere in the middle. She's a gardener by inclination, but has been raising the kids while Nic makes the money, and she's slowly inching her way toward starting a landscaping business.
Then there's race. Paul has a casual, though steamy affair with an employee -- the hostess of his restaurant, Tanya (Yaya DaCosta). Having the love interest be a black employee carries a certain amount of racial baggage already, but there's a particularly telling plot line that really pushes the issue. Tanya sees Paul getting to know the two kids enabled by his sperm, and she tells Paul, a little wistfully, that he'd make a terrific dad. Later, when Paul falls for Jules, he tells Tanya that he can't be with her because what he really wants is to make a family. She tells him to fuck off, end of scene. The question is, are the filmmakers making a statement about Paul's racism and leaving us to get it, or are they being stupid? I think the former must be the case. The whole thing is so smart, they couldn't be that dumb about race, could they?
In the end, after much hilarious mayhem and a lot of telling stereotypes -- a cartoon-like Mexican gardener, the aforementioned African American beauty, and the answer to the question of how lesbians actually do it (for Hollywood, it seems, they still need men, real or virtual, to get off) -- the troublesome sperm donor is dismissed (a little too abruptly, I thought), and redress is accomplished.
So, to take up Turner again, the status quo of the bourgeois family is re-established, but not quite as it was before. It's shifted. Now, perhaps, the bourgeois norm will accommodate queer parenting, at least for the privileged few who can afford the trappings of affluent normalcy.
By many accounts, this is the best movie of the year. I'd say that within the constraints of the Hollywood form, it's a masterpiece. It should get all the major Oscars.
One of the best things about watching the film is the audience reaction. I heard lots of deep, rumbling laughter in the cinema, the kind of genuine, whole-body hilarity that comes from the sudden apprehension of really, really smart comedic moments, the kind that have tragedy at their root. It was grown-up laughter, from people who had done parenting and long-term relationships and knew the impossibility of these intimately. That's the main thing: this is a smart movie for grownups. After a couple of years of comic book explosions and people bouncing off windshields (I actually sat through a series of previews where three out of five had interior views of someone bouncing off a windshield), the film is most welcome.
I hope a couple of billion people see it. Maybe it will move us ahead an inch or two.Tweet