Deciphering 21st Century Celluloid Domesticity: The Nuclear Family in "The Kids Are All Right"

Whenever friends visit my temporary home of sunny San Diego, they marvel at the weather and incredulously ask me what my misanthropic problem is as I bemoan my SoCal discomfort. New Yorkers are the worst, prattling on about lack of congestion, clear blue skies and expansive five lane highways, a far cry from the BQE at rush hour or really at any time. However, I always stop to remind them that constant sunshine can be just as oppressive as endless Alaskan darkness, frigid Midwestern winters, or the sticky East coast summers that leave you dirty even after showering. Sometimes the brightest exteriors mask more complex inner workings, even when clothed in allegedly alternative trappings.

In 1979, shortly after drummer Keith Moon’s death, the Who released The Kids Are Alright, a collection of concert and video footage that illustrated their growth from rock group to artistic endeavor. Even if one found Pete Townshend’s burgeoning artiness off-putting or pretentious, clearly the Who developed into more than simply a band. A maturation of not insignificant proportions (in the long narrative of classic rock family trees they are perpetually grouped with the Stones, Led Zeppelin and the like though the Who’s progeny seem to be connected more often with the punk movement of the 1970s while the Stones and Zeppellin can be thanked for countless numbers of hair bands from Hanoi Rocks to White Lion to Kingdom Come), a coming of age if you will. Yet, in the end whatever their artistic intentions (and even internally the band battled over the extent to which it expressed them) or the radical musicians they influenced, the Who remains a standard bearer of classic rock, a staple of AOR radio, hardly a challenge to the status quo.

This summer’s similarly (though not identically) titled The Kids Are All Right, directed by Lisa Cholodenko, explores the lives of what Chicago Reader critic J.R. Jones describes as an “atypical family in Los Angeles—a lesbian couple and their teenage son and daughter, each child conceived by a different mother but from the same sperm donor—and finds them to be fairly typical after all.” Exactly. The surface appears to be fundamentally different, but when one digs deeper, this family seems more typical than most, as Jones continues pointing to their children’s true lack of wonder regarding their moms’ sexuality, “they’re almost comically unimpressed by their mothers’ alternative lifestyle; the most important thing they’ve picked up from their parents is that love and devotion are more important than sex, a thoroughly traditional notion.” It’s still a summer movie, after all.

First, regardless of what one think of the movie’s “radical” premise nearly all the performances emanate from the talents of the cast. Annette Benning (Nic) and Julianne Moore (Jules) balance each other’s characters excellently coming off as a quite traditional couple; the performances by Mia Wasikowska who plays the daughter Joni and Josh Hutcherson as the son Lazer (yes that’s right Lazer, perhaps the only truly unconventional aspect of the film, though one any SoCal resident might find disturbingly normal) probably couldn’t be any better. Finally, as several critics have gushed, Mark Ruffalo’s return to form as a feckless, wandering, somewhat adolescent adult (reminiscent of his work in You Can Count on Me) who nearly two decades earlier donated the sperm that impregnated Nic and Jules respectively.

The narrative that has developed around the movie seems to be one of recognition; recognition that we’ve changed as a society, perhaps for the better. Take Jones’s observation: “Plenty of movies strive for topicality, but occasionally something like The Kids Are All Right slaps you in the face with the world you’re actually living in. The first sperm bank in the U.S. opened in the early 70s—almost two generations ago—but this is the first movie I can think of that’s treated artificial insemination not as some sort of gimmick for comedy or melodrama but as an established fact of American life.” Or A.O. Scott’s argument that “The Kids Are All Right starts from the premise that gay marriage, an issue of ideological contention and cultural strife, is also an established social fact. Nic and Jules, a couple with two children, a Volvo and a tidy, spacious house in a pleasant suburban stretch of Southern California, are a picture of normalcy.” Much like Rachel Getting Married assumed multiculturalism, The Kids Are All Right never even acknowledges that there might be controversy over such a familial structure. One might even argue that the smugness that some observers critiqued in Rachel Getting Married emerges once again. [Author’s note: T of M was one of them, but both authors would also like to point out that each thoroughly enjoyed Rachel despite such flaws — RR/AC.] After all, Nic is a successful OB-GYN, Jules has a wrist tattoo and her own newly established landscaping design business, and Joni has a prestigious science scholarship to college (one can only assume she’s attending the flagship California university, UC Berkeley). The couple engages in the average marital drama squabbling over the idiosyncracies of the other and their various domestic roles. Even Paul (Ruffalo) has his own organic style restaurant – American creative, of course – that uses only locally grown organic food. Paul, as he tells the couple and their two children at a BBQ, is a “doer,” but college never panned out for him. All very bohemian, all very Southern California.

The movie’s title alone encourages one to stop and think. New York magazine reviewer David Edelstein acknowledged this, noting, “The title, like Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give, is one that trails you out of the theater and gives you something to brood on. (It has nothing to do with the Who—who spelled all right wrong anyway.)” This point deserves some unpacking. First, Edelstein’s wrong about the Who reference. If Nic and Jules are not manifestations of boomer culture, the same boomer culture that the Who rode to prominence in, no one is. For example, the daughter Joni gets her namesake from the artist Joni Mitchell while Paul and Nic exchange a dinner time rendition of Blue. So it’s certainly possible that Chodolenko (who also wrote the script) was aware of the connection. Second, the title reinforces the boomer idea that in some way, their generation changed the world from tolerant multiculutralism (i.e. Rachel Getting Married) to newfound acceptance of human sexuality and alternative familial spaces (or as Nayan Shah might suggest “queer domesticities”). Yes, as Matthew Lillard’s capitalist sell out father (“I didn’t sell out, I bought in.”) relates to his 1980s punk crazed son in SLC Punk, “We ended that God Damn war in Vietnam!” Well yeah, you and the Vietnamese — you might want to give the latter a little more credit.

Undoubtedly, critical push back has occurred. The New Yorker dismissed the film for such conceits: “All of this is made so much worse by everyone’s aching need to be holier, and hipper, than thou. The California that we get in this film is a greener, gayer update of the California that Woody Allen took such perfect potshots at, more than thirty years ago, in Annie Hall, the difference being that Cholodenko doesn’t always know that it is funny.” While some might suggest a New Yorker critic making such claims amounts to the kettle calling the pot black, it’s not altogether inaccurate. California did prominently BAN gay marriage two years ago through its allegedly “awesome” referendum system — a touch of irony, no?

Yet maybe, thinking about the title in terms of the parents is exactly the problem. Recent studies suggest that Lazer and Joni’s generation, warped by prosperity, technology, and social networking (and anyone whose gone to a film this summer has seen the preview for the Facebook biopic The Social Network – a movie that appears surprisingly unsocial), lack the kind of empathy that make us human. Here, clearly, that’s not the case as both children appear grounded and good natured, if afflicted with typical teenage angst. Granted, one might still connect this to the parents, who after all raised them, but perhaps Cholodenko wants everyone to know, we are all OK.

Other critics like New York Press’s Armond White, savaged those who present Kids as some sort of modern movie elixir, instead holding up Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime as a superior equivalent: “Solondz’s satire cuts very close to the bone, correcting such complacency as in The Kids Are All Right— which a critic foolishly claimed ‘shows how we live today’ when its PC propaganda actually does the opposite.” For White, “Kids lacks the painful authenticity of life that Solondz seems to have perfected.” White rips apart Cyrus (another summer movie about non-traditional family relationships) and Greenberg as “mawkish.” Still, one might counter that Solondz remains Hollywood’s premier misanthrope, a director who can find fault and tragedy in an ice cream cone on a hot summer day. Welcome to the Dollhouse for all its excellence adopted perhaps the harshest view of junior high ever committed to film, an interpretation that while at times accurate also proves overtly dark. Though White suggests that Solondz’s “situations are funny, shocking and tough [but] never sarcastic”, unless he’s reserving that observation for Life During Wartime alone, it seems a difficult argument to sustain.

Other critics found in Kids a crushing traditionalism. Both children seem to yearn or at least wonder about the possibility of a masculine role model. In relation, Jules’s marital infidelity with Paul smacks of the bored, unappreciated spouse stepping out on their dutiful other as a means to mitigate feelings of invisibility. Jules’s actions seem not unlike those of the frigid Betty in Mad Men or countless other examples, man and woman. The implied reconciliation of the couple, reinforces the idea of marriage as a troubled but reliable institution, one that Jules describes as a “marathon” in a mea culpa that Keith Uhlich of Time Out New York described as “particularly unfortunate—an Oscar clip trying desperately to mask its award-grubbiness, the kind of faux-profound summation that would make Aesop cringe.” Moreover, others found the movie’s treatment of the family’s sperm donor problematic. Paul’s ostracization, though admittedly deserved, troubled the New Yorker:

What Cholodenko, at her sneakiest, is doing here is to ask what occurs when a moral elasticity encounters sturdier, more traditional forms of living. Paul, for example, may only be a makeshift father figure, but under his influence Joni begins to stand up for herself against the brittle Nic, and Laser is inspired to drop an unsuitable friend—something that his mothers have long been urging him to do, without success. As for Jules, she gets laid by a man, which, if nothing else, makes a change, the problem being that the small, tolerant world of these prosperous folk can’t handle a change that extreme. Just as the California sunshine somehow loses its relaxing suffusion and hardens into a cruel noontide, so, by an irony that Cholodenko may not fully have intended, the climax of The Kids Are All Right grows suddenly humorless, and close to vengeful, in its moralizing glare.

The implication that a lesbian couple should be more forgiving of infidelity than more hidebound traditional heterosexual pairings seems confusing. Isn’t marriage, whether hetero or same sex, essentially about devotion to the other? Why would being gay change the rules of that game? Moreover, Paul’s ostracization may not be a political act in the least, but rather a human one. When Uhlich chastises the movie for its treatment of the lazily handsome Ruffalo, “there’s something suspect in the way the film disposes of him, as if his very real complications (the paternal love he shows alongside his libidinous flaws) have no place in the unconvincingly traditionalist family portrait Cholodenko is painting,” there seems to be a lack of acknowledgment of the “grubbiness” of reality. He bedded Nic’s wife; yes, he also loves the two kids, but how would that not cause friction and alienation? Again, are homosexuals supposed to be more tolerant of infidelity than straights? Why? Homosexual does not mean promiscuous, does it?

To be fair, critics who enjoyed the film, like the aforementioned Jones, pointed out that for some Kids will seem a lefty polemic: “Of course, redefining the family according to this love and devotion rather than any rigid gender roles is a cherished goal of lifestyle liberals, and though The Kids Are All Right sometimes smacks of political correctness, Cholodenko succeeds brilliantly in making her little clan seem completely run-of-the-mill.” Though one wonders just how absent said gender roles are when Nic and Jules engage in a semi-public argument in which Jules accuses Nic of being controlling and wanting a “wife”. Much like Townsend and Roger Daltrey battled for the Who’s vision of masculinity (Daltrey refused to sing on several songs, complaining about Townsend’s arty, less masculine interpretations), so too do Nic and Jules struggle to define their own roles internally and externally. Modern life, Generation X’s perpetual adolescence, and Boomer self satisfaction (lined with continuing self doubts about their alleged cultural accomplishments) combine to ferment in a challenging stew of human confusion. Who are we? What are our roles? God, have I become my parents? In the end, the New Yorker’s negative review actually suggests the very reason Kids is worth watching: “Danger shrinks back, and the kids are all right again, although you have to wonder who the real kids are: Joni and Laser, wise and wry, or their messed-up moms and feckless dad, who have so much more to learn?” Maybe we all are.

Ryan Reft