An All American Family, with a Twist

Benning, Moore, Wasikowska in "The Kids Are All Right"

Film Friday

With the New York state legislature hanging in the balance about whether to legalize same sex marriage, it’s worth asking ourselves how we got this far.  Film has played a role.

I remember discussions in leftist circles in the 1970’s about pushing a liberal agenda through film.  Show a courageous union organizer like Norma Rae or whistleblower like Karen Silkwood and you’ll get a lot further than doing almost anything else.  They may well have been right.  Earlier this week Julia and I watched The Kids Are All Right (2010), which succeeds in making same sex partnership look as American as apple pie.

In fact, if the parents (Julianne Moore as Jules, Annette Bening as Nic) weren’t the same sex, the film probably wouldn’t have been made.  After all, the plot has nothing more exceptional than Jules, longing for an excitement that has gone out of the marriage partnership, committing adultery.  Nic and the kids feel betrayed, there is unpleasantness, and then the family reknits.

What is unusual is that Jules has her affair with the father of her child (Paul, played by Mark Ruffalo), who she meets only because her kids, without her knowledge, have tracked down the sperm donor. The affair is pornographic fantasy, not discovery that she is heterosexual. In other words, her transgression involves having sex with a man whereas integrity means remaining with a woman.

For those unwilling to accept same sex partnerships, the film offers some dark temptations: Are you willing to give Paul the family he suddenly discovers he wants, even though he has done none of the hard work involved with raising a family?  Do you want Jules to go straight, even though this would mean leaving Nic out in the cold?

The Kids Are All Right makes it clear that such a plot development would be, well, unAmerican.  In the end, Paul is expelled as “an interloper”—“Go off and make your own family,” Nic orders him—and the nuclear family is restored.  The film strikes a blow for traditional family values.

If the arc of history continues to bend as it seems to be bending, same sex marriage will one day become generally accepted.  In ten years (is that too optimistic?), we may watch The Kids Are All Right and wonder why someone chose to make a film about such a mundane subject.

That’s what we’re fighting for: the freedom of gays and lesbians to be as conventional as everyone else.


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  1. Josh English
    Posted June 24, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    I hope one day that this kind of movie would be seen as mundane, but then, doesn’t it fail in one of the primary purposes of literature and drama, that is, to make the ordinary extraordinary, to find the universal experience of humanity in the mundane? I haven’t seen the movie, and the way it is presented makes it sound like it’s not a very good movie, drama-wise.

  2. Posted June 24, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    I like this review, Robin. Haven’t seen the film yet, but it’s on my list.

    Yeah, that’s what my gay friends want, I think, to be treated as if being gay is as commonplace as apple pie.

    Don’t know if we’ll ever get there, but anything’s possible once the movies show that, no indeed, it’s not the end of the world.

    I wonder though if and when the time should come when a gay couple and family causes not the sligtest stir – if there might not be some resentment. After all, no one really wants to be thought of as ‘commonplace’ – not really.

  3. Robin Bates
    Posted June 24, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    This is a very wise comment, Josh, and helps me render a judgment that I was having difficulty making. A great filmmaker like Rohmer can take a far more subtle instance of marital infidelity (as he does in Claire’s Knee) and find the poetry in it. I think this film may rely a bit too much on its against-the-grain factor. I don’t find it a great film but it challenges stereotypes in useful ways.

  4. Robin Bates
    Posted June 24, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Replying to Josh clarified some things for me, Yvette. I’m not sure that the film makes these people seem anything but commonplace. So while we’re grateful to it for treating a same-sex family as utterly normal–one doesn’t have to be heroic or daring or particularly outstanding to achieve a life like this–I’m not sure that it pushes deeper into the soul.

    Recently I read (and wrote on) Passage to India and thought that the Indian protagonist is far too grateful to an English woman simply for taking him seriously. Her respect is vital and a good trait but he should be able to take it for granted and not be blinded by a gratitude that grows out of racism-induced low self esteem.

  5. Posted June 25, 2011 at 12:27 am | Permalink

    gives more insight into where such things are likely headed. Marriage
    founded on self-fulfillment and status-seeking won’t have the force to constrain
    the power of our sexuality. Real marriage will remain what it has always
    been–as elusive as ever to those who think they can make it what they will.


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