The other day, film critic Scott Mendelson released his list of the most overrated films of 2010, which, when tweeted by me, provoked a bit of a firestorm on Twitter. On Scott's list was The Kids Are All Right, a film which I've previously listed as one of my favorite films of the year (although to be honest, it probably won't make the final cut). Scott also linked to Kim Voynar's thoughtful piece on the film. It's this latter piece that I'd like to very briefly respond to today. The following contains spoilers for The Kids Are All Right.
Voynar and others have some pretty serious problems with Lisa Cholodenko's film. One of the points Voynar makes (that I agree with) is how poorly the actual kids are handled in this film. They are given very little screentime, and their character arcs are handled with the broadest of brush strokes. Voynar continues, though:
Herein lies another problem with the script: It’s younger brother Laser who convinces big sis Joni, who’s just turned 18, to get in contact with their sperm donor/biological father, but the script doesn’t really explore any issues around why a teenage boy raised by two women might be curious about his father or desire a male adult in his life. But once they meet, it’s Joni who’s more drawn to Paul, while Laser is unimpressed; it’s Joni who first suggests getting together with Paul again.
It almost felt to me as though this was a deliberate choice on Cholodenko’s part, to deny that this might be something a boy raised by two women might face as he hits his teen years. If we can accept that in general, boys raised by single moms, or in matriarchal family structures with a grandmother and mother but no father figure might, at some point, benefit from having a male mentor of some sort in their lives (uncle, family friend, Big Brother volunteer, pastor, coach), why wouldn’t the same hold true for a boy raised by two moms?
Voynar doesn't acknowledge that a) maybe Laser just doesn't find Ruffalo's character as interesting as he thought he would, an interaction/dynamic that undoubtedly occurs frequently in real life and b) Laser does indeed take Ruffalo's advice to heart not to hang out with Laser's emotionally abusive friend. Sure, the latter is not the most subtle plot development, but it certainly addresses Voynar's concern about this matter.
Voynar also takes issue with Jules' implied bi-sexuality:
The relationship that develops between Paul and Jules I found particularly problematic. It’s never said or implied that Jules was previously bisexual, but the script treats her sexual identity as something she can just cast aside. And while I got that she was connecting with Paul emotionally, that he was accepting of her in ways that Jules feels Nic is not, that he “gets” her in a way which perhaps she didn’t even know was lacking in her life, I didn’t buy that this would translate into lesbian Jules suddenly hopping in bed with a guy. Paul and Jules developing a friendship, him becoming her confidant, them maybe talking to each other all the time and shutting Nic out, and that feeling threatening to Nic? That, I would buy...To me, by not explicitly establishing Jules as bi, Cholodenko loses a lot of credibility here.
Jules' act of adultery was indeed surprising, and the lack of any explicit explanation with regards to bisexuality is a noticeable omission. But did the situation seem inconceivable to me? No. Especially not in this movie, which almost prides itself on treating unconventional sexual situations with nonchalance. In the end, Jules establishes she can't run away with Paul's character because she states, emphatically, "I'm a lesbian!" And while she did derive some emotional and sexual satisfaction in being with Paul, this was short-lived and more emblematic of the problems with Jules' marriage (and the inappropriate seeking behavior it inspired) than with any deep-rooted desire to cast off her sexual identity. I understand the desire for a movie such as this to have a more coherent stance on sexual/gender issues, but that might not have been Cholodenko's over-arching goal.
Voynar concludes by interpreting the film's apparently-pat ending:
And then in the end, rather than actually dealing with the underlying issues between Nic and Jules, Cholodenko uses Paul as the scapegoat. The kids more or less forgive Jules for making a choice that threatened their family, while Paul is flatly unforgiven and shunned from the fold. He didn’t ask for any of this to be brought into his life, but it was, and now it’s changed irrevocably who he is and what he wants out of life … but he can’t have it with these children.
I don't remember who pointed it out first, but it's interesting that The Kids Are All Right reverses the typical gender roles in films. Usually, it's the female who serves merely as a plot device to get the male protagonist to realize something about himself and about his future direction. Said females are often discarded or given short shrift (plot/character-wise). But in Kids Are All Right, it's Ruffalo's character who gets completely disregarded, both from the perspective of the film and the perspective of its protagonists. In other words, The Kids Are All Right doesn't shortchange Ruffalo's character any more than a normal film shortchanges its female side characters. If anything, the film's crime is that it makes Ruffalo's character too likable and too fully-formed, which is why his last scene in the film feels so abrupt and unexpected. What's going to happen to this guy? The audience wants to know.
More to the point, I have a much different take on the ending of this film. Annette Bening does have that brilliant, Oscar-worthy moment towards the end, in which she expounds on the difficulties of marriage (saying that it's "fucking hard"). But I do not get the sense that the removal of Paul from their lives is going to solve all their problems. Bening's speech is part-conclusion, part-beginning. They've struggled through the horrors of an adulterous affair, and now they're going to have to go through the painful process of rebuilding their family. It's not a pat resolution. It's the acknowledgement that there is still much work ahead. But maybe, just maybe, everything will be okay in the end.
They are half his kids in the purely biological sense, but they are all Nic’s and Jules’ in the emotional one. The problem is, I didn’t see anything in his previous interactions with the kids that would convince me that, having wanted to meet their biological father for so long, they would excise him from their lives so readily because their mom decided to have an affair with him.
Really? If anything, the kids' dismissal of Paul is an affirmation of how good a job Nic and Jules have been at raising them. Faced with an intruder that completely f*cked things up, their reaction is to cast it out of their household. Maybe that's what the title is all about; that these kids,who have weathered growing up in an unconventional family and an adulterous affair with a sperm donor that they themselves sought out, still understand that in the end, family is the most important thing, and the ties that bind aren't necessarily biological ones.