Burning Down the House

A review of "The Kids are All Right"

By Yiftach Ofek

The movie "The Kids Are All Right" presents an atypical family consisting of two married lesbian mothers raising two children, and was released at around the same time Judge Vaughn Walker overturned California's Proposition 8. From a timing perspective, it could not have been better for the filmmakers, for it was immediately thrust into the public debate over same sex marriage. This was as intended, because—as I gathered from interviews with the director Lisa Cholodenko and the overwhelming majority of the reviews—the film also had a strong political statement: that by showing the public a two-mom family engaged in a supposedly "normal" marriage, with "normal" marriage highs and lows, the movie would alter perceptions, and this family model would gain more respectability. Because the film was placed so strongly within the context of the national debate, I approached it from that point of view. Yet by the end of the film, I was rather surprised by my conclusions. I realized that as pure entertainment, the movie is quite good. But as a political message, it is a failure. For if anything, this movie suggests not the normalcy of such a family, but rather, its dysfunctionality.

The plot revolves around the relationship of high-strung, single-provider doctor Nic (Annette Bening) and free-spirited, New Age-inspired, low self-esteemed landscape designer Jules (Julianne Moore). They have two kids: accomplished daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowaska), who has just turned 18, graduated from high school and is about to start university; and the lost teenager, rebel-without-a-cause Laser (Josh Hutcherson). The two children were fathered by the same sperm donor, and so they are half-siblings to one another.

Despite the film's title, the kids are not alright. No one really is. Joni, despite her academic achievements, is unable to express her attraction to her best male friend. Laser, lacking a male role model, spends most of his time with his friend Clay, who encourages Laser to try out drugs and engage in minor violent activities. Meanwhile, the two mothers' relationship seems stagnant, and the two take out their frustrations on one another. For entertainment and sexual arousal, the mothers watch gay male porn, but it is obvious that even though in the past this might have "done the trick," the magic is long gone.

Things take an unexpected twist when daughter Joni turns 18, and she and her brother use her recently acquired legal adult status to contact their biological father through the sperm donation clinic. They opt to meet him, and the children and the father begin to get to know one another. When the mothers find this out, they too want to become acquainted with the formerly anonymous donor (mostly out of fear of losing their authority). The father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), grows organic food and owns a restaurant, rides a motorcycle, and, until he meets his children, seems to enjoy the frivolous life of an uncommitted bachelor. He is invited to lunch, and when he hears that Jules is a landscape designer asks her to take up his backyard. She agrees, and the two soon start a romantic, sexual relationship.

As can be expected, this development has a negative effect on the lesbian couple. But it has a positive effect on Jules, Paul, and, most importantly, the children. For the first time, they are all right. Jules seems to be happy for the first time in a long while. She is more satisfied sexually with Paul than she was with Nic. She becomes more assertive and independent, firing her assistant gardener in a frenzy of self-confidence. As for Paul, the meeting with his children brings out the father in him. He wants to spend time with them, takes an interest in their lives, wants them to get to know him better, gives them advice, and upon realizing that he is falling in love with Jules, ends his relationship with his "friend with benefits" in pursuit of settling down. The children, finally having a male role model to look up to, begin resolving their emotional problems. Joni finally expresses her repressed feelings towards her love interest, and Laser ends his friendship with the troubled and dangerous Clay. The positive transformation undergone by all (except for Nic) stands out in marked contrast to the previous banality and ongoing strain of their previous lives.

Yet when Paul and Jules' affair is discovered, things begin to fall apart. Paul offers Jules the option of coupling with him, but Jules turns her back on the possibility of a serious heterosexual relationship and the family model that would accompany it. Instead, she chooses to make amends with Nic and her previous lifestyle, with the audience asking themselves, why? What is there to amend? Can we not assume that the lesbian relationship will remain as rocky, emotionally unstable, and sexually unsatisfying as it was before? Are we really to believe that such a relationship is indeed to be preferred? Is this the normalcy the filmmakers are trying to promote?

After the exposure, Paul is treated as a villain. His children cut relations with him. He loses both his love interest and his newly-acquired status as a father. He becomes the scapegoat for all that was going wrong in that family. And it is unclear why he should suffer such a fate. He brought positivity, and—dare I say—normalcy into the home, something very obviously missing. If the movie was supposed to evoke empathy for same-sex families, it really fails to do so. Sympathy lies squarely on Paul's side. The positive effects that Paul has had on the family seem to have been excluded from consideration in the writing of the film's conclusion, and the "Happily Ever After" that is offered is therefore hard to fathom. This is why the film fails in my opinion as a political message. If there is a political message to this movie, it is definitely not that same-sex marriages are good, but quite the opposite.

On the subject of acting, however, the cast does a (mostly) superb job at conveying the characters. Applause for the young Mia Wasikowska is especially deserving. The only exception is Mark Ruffalo, who gives an uncharacteristically flawed performance in trying to portray his persona as aloof. He never really is, and it shows.

Thumbs up also for the choice of music on the soundtrack. It contributes greatly to the film's easy-ride and entertainment value, and entertaining it most certainly is. But perception-altering? Not for this viewer.