27 July, 2010

Movie Review: The Kids Are All Right (2010)

The Kids are All Right opens with Laser (Josh Hutcherson), a fifteen-year-old skateboarder capable of getting into some mischief. He and his friend Clay barrel down a neighborhood street, knocking over curbside trashcans and wreaking suburban havoc. In a garage, Clay smashes up a prescription pill, snorts it, and then commands that Laser do the same. He does, and soon they're sky high, wrestling in Clay's living room as his trashy father berates them. As the father jokingly wrestles his cracked-out teenage son to the ground, Laser looks on with a passive, almost envious smile.

Following Laser is a good place to start this film. The son of two lesbian mothers and the less ambitious, less talented sibling to an older, valedictorian sister, Laser is the only male in his family, and also the youngest and most powerless. He's a good kid, pretty reasonable and fairly level-headed, but he's at an age where committing meaningless criminal acts begins to look like an appealing opportunity. Will he become wayward and impressionable, or will he develop a strong, independent personality? Does his look as he watches his friend's father suggest a silent yearning for a male role model? What does it mean for a boy to be raised by two alternately doting and high-strung mothers yet have no positive older men to look up to?

The opening of The Kids Are All Right suggests all of these themes, and when Laser soon after initiates the movie's main plot--getting in touch with the anonymous donor who contributed half of the kids' genes via a sperm bank almost two decades ago--the screenplay further cements the idea that this is Laser's story.

It's not. His acts of delinquency go unnoticed and unpunished by his parents. His desire for a father figure remains unfulfilled, even after meeting his biological father. Quickly, as the film switches to the moms as the main characters, Laser drifts to the periphery of the film and the family, almost serving as a nonperson in much of the proceedings. During emotional scenes as the rest of the family breaks down in tears, he is oddly silent and awkwardly non-responsive, almost emotionally detached from the people who are supposedly closest to him. I know "teenage boys don't cry," but trust me, they do. Laser never does, perhaps because within the scenes we see he has no relationship with anyone. One of his mothers, Nic (Annette Bening), the powerful, bread-winning matriarch of the family, constantly cuts him off, mocks him, or dismisses him. (The film's final line, in fact, is a sarcastic "Thank you, Laser" directed to him in the backseat before the camera moves to focus exclusively on the two mothers, who we are made to believe are much more important than him. The sarcasm is appropriate given the context, but it's also uncomfortably dismissive given that Laser's prior remark may be deeper than its surface appears.) His other mother, Jules (Julianne Moore), has too many personal issues to resolve within the film's time span for her to have much of a relationship with either of her kids, and his sister Joni (Mia Washikowska) maintains a civil but altogether unintimate friendship with him.

At best, his role in the film is warped by his mothers into an irrelevant subplot where they attempt to project onto him a level of meaning that they would appreciate yet that has nothing to do with him or reality. Concerned about his only close relationship--the dysfunctional friendship with his idiot punk friend Clay--Nic and and Jules begin to assume that their son is gay. There's absolutely no reason to assume this; there's nothing gay about the kid, and any mother with any sense and likewise any lesbian with any gaydar should know that (and trust me, both of these are intuitions that exist in a very real, very physical sense), but through some combination of wishful thinking and an attempt to justify their son's need to have someone with a penis in his life, they wander into a silly subplot of questioning and interrogation. "You know you can tell us anything and we won't judge you," they tell him. It's supposed to ironically comical--imagine two gay parents being judgmental and unsupportive of their gay son!--but the scene comes across as insulting and unrealistic. Later, when Nic jokingly confesses, "I wish you were gay--then maybe you'd be more sensitive," the remark is oddly stereotypical, bluntly unloving, and reveals an unspoken chasm between the two. She judges him for not being gay. In a world where men are bullies (Clay), slobs (Clay's father), nincompoops (an effete friend who, in a brief scene, delivers a silly monologue about açaí smoothies), sex objects (the couple, oddly enough, watch vintage gay male porn during sex), racist tropes (an Hispanic gardener is ridiculed and then fired for no reason by Jules), wallpaper (Joni's best friend is a passive, nonsexual Scrabble player), or villains (the biological father), Nic desperately tries to find some justification for Laser and his presence in her life. "Maybe, God willing," she seems to think, "he will be gay, and then I can in some way relate to him."

I'm not saying this is how real lesbians or real lesbian mothers think and behave. I think it's far from impossible for a middle aged lesbian woman to have a relationship with her teenage straight son. But, given Laser's presence in this film, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko suggests otherwise. Maybe it's Josh Hutcherson's fault. He was okay in Disney's Bridge to Terabithia (2007), but maybe he didn't have the acting chops to pull off more meaningful scenes, and perhaps those intended scenes were left on the cutting room floor. That doesn't seem likely, though.

Laser only has two other major--though very brief--segments in the film. One is an irrelevant scene in which he and the sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo) attempt to bond while shooting hoops. They get into a heated discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of burial and cremation. Whether this scene hints at Laser's obsession with death--or at any other deeper psychological meaning--is never disclosed; the topic is never mentioned again. The other segment is a pair of scenes involving him, Paul, and Clay. Paul witnesses Clay's rude, controlling behavior toward Laser, and rather than perceiving a nonexistent homoerotic subtext or clothing his advice in the meaningless self-help jargon that the moms are prone to speaking in ("How do you feel that your relationship with Clay is developing your path to self-actualization?"), Paul bluntly and honestly tells Laser that he doesn't like Clay's disrespectful behavior. Laser defensively dismisses Paul as being a misinterpreting, interfering idiot, but in their next scene together, as Clay tries to force Laser to hold a stray dog still while Clay pisses on its head, Laser finally stands up for himself and ends his friendship with the loser. Paul's amiable honesty enacts Laser's only change--and one of the only positive developments--in the film, whereas the mothers' doting and clinical "love" only results in confusion and frustration.

And yet, despite this, the film presents Paul as the villain. Mark Rufallo plays the character as he plays many of his roles: charming, relaxed, harmless, and aimless. As a young man he donated sperm out of combination of wanting to help people and needing the sixty dollars. Whether his intentions were truly noble or not is irrelevant; can the donation of sperm (or blood or plasma or any renewable resource) ever be deemed a serious, altruistic sacrifice? In any case, people were willing to pay for his sperm, and the family in the film would perhaps never have existed if not for donors like him. As a fortysomething, he owns and operates a successful, nice-looking, upscale casual restaurant using organic ingredients that he grows himself in a local cooperative farm. His employees all seem to like him, and I think most people would agree that--with his nice, large home and his cool record collection, his extensive wine collection and his BMW motorcycle--he has done pretty well for himself. Maybe he hasn't changed the world in any drastic way, but what would our country be without cool restaurants, and how many people honestly change the world anyway?

None of that is good enough for Nic, however. If she's to have a man in her life, he needs to be the perfect kind of man, a textbook example of a positive role model. She ridicules him for having dropped out of college, and she dismisses his autodidacticism as being dangerous, even though he is probably more successful and happier than many people with college degrees. She dismisses his notable career as mere employment in the "food service industry," as though he is flipping burgers and operating a fryer. As an emergency room nurse, she curses his motorcycle driving, though he operates the vehicle with the fullest measure of safety. When Paul offers Jules the support and encouragement that Nic refuses to offer (Jules wants to start her own landscaping business, which Nic routinely dismisses as a foolish proposal)--in fact, when he offers anyone in the family the kind of bare bones, realistic, human advice that he's good for, inspired not by self-help books with boldfaced terms like "developmental process" but by actual exposure to reality--Nic attacks him as an interloping, vicious rogue.

But Paul is not foolhardy, nor he is an interloper. The kids contact him first; and their repeated contact brings him deeper into their lives. It is Nic's idea to invite him over to dinner at their house in order to "kill him with kindness." He plays along like a good sport, mostly because he has an earnest interest in understanding and loving these kindred spirits, but it is entirely their fault that he is a part of their lives.

At the first meeting between Paul and the kids, Laser sees his motorcycle and expresses his enthusiastic desire to ride one. He never has, however, because his parents refuse to let him. If Paul were dangerous or careless, or even if he simply wanted to impress or ingratiate himself into the lives of these new acquaintances, he might say something along the lines of, "What they don't know won't hurt them!" How many thoughtless adults try to buy the love of children by letting them do things they're not supposed to do? Nevertheless, it never crosses Paul's mind to violate the real parents' rule, and Laser never rides the motorcycle in the movie.

This early scene solidifies Paul's rather noble character, and further scenes--such as his honest talk with Laser about Clay--illustrate his presence as an honest, realistic, and positive influence. At one point he tells Joni, who is preparing to leave for college in a month, that the only way to initiate her path to independent adulthood is to initiate it herself. It's not the typical advice that parents give to children--that any adults give to children--but it's true. No adult should be dominated by a controlling mother for her entire life. Paul even bonds with Nic, albeit very briefly, over a shared love for the songwriter Joni Mitchell (the daughter's namesake).

His most damningly positive influence, however, is with Jules. Starved for affection, attention, encouragement, and purpose, Paul provides for the insecure Jules everything that the controlling, judgmental, disinterested Nic denies. Stirred by his good vibes, and weirdly aroused by his resemblance to her children, Jules initiates a frantic, stress-inducing love affair with him. Though he is complicit, she initiates it and she allows it to persist, despite her reservations.

Why does she have sex--lots of sex--with a man? Why does she watch gay male sex during lovemaking with her wife? Has she ever had sex with a man before? Is there some psychological need that only a man can fulfill? Is she as gay as we thought she was? Is she as gay as she thought she was? The affair is the major focus of the film's many divergent, confused subplots, yet these interesting questions are either never raised or scarcely discussed. That's okay, since what's most important is Jules's need to feel loved, but it's odd that this lesbian-made film manifests that need in such an uncomfortably sexual way. I didn't like how these films were dismissed as mere comedy. When a middle aged, married lesbian has an exuberant affair with a man she's just met, I want more than a few jokes. I want insight.

But Lisa Cholodenko doesn't offer insight. Instead, the affair--and Nic's discovery of the affair--is used as the kick that sends Paul's character toppling down. Joni dismisses his positive influence, discoloring his entire personality because of one mistake that wasn't entirely his fault. Laser, who can so easily remove people from his life because he apparently forms no attachments to anyone, shrugs him off with a hateful glance and nary a goodbye. Following an earnest, naive, and completely unbelievable confession of love, Jules hangs up on him in disgust, in a way pushing all the responsibility onto him for her mistake. Nic, however, is given the final word; in an angry telling off, she accuses him of being an "interloper" and tells him that if he wants a family, he should go create his own instead of ruining other people's. That's Paul's last scene. The film continues for about fifteen more minutes, but it continues without Paul, who is outcast without a chance to defend himself. In these final scenes, happiness abounds and normality returns. Jules makes a tearful apology. Everyone cries (except Laser). Everyone hugs (except Laser). Joni grows up and goes to college. The couple holds hands, and all is right in the world.

The Kids Are All Right would be quite interesting if it highlighted its unfairness toward Paul. His only real flaw in the movie is a presumptuous dismissal he gives to a waitress/lover (played in a brief but convincing role by the beautiful Yaya DaCosta), with whom he ends his affair by explaining that he wants a serious relationship (and thus assuming that she is incapable of being serious). Even this flaw, however, reveals a yearning toward some goodness (i.e., he is in love with Jules, which is the real reason for the breakup). Despite his dearth of serious shortcomings, the film gives him the short shrift. By giving the last word to the film's least likable character, Nic, whose only saving grace (and she even admits this in a pointed comeback that's supposed to make us fully side with her) is that she's monogamous, the film effectively vilifies Paul and lends credence to all of Nic's prejudgments of him (that he is ignorant for dropping out of school, that he is reckless for driving a motorcycle, etc.). While the film could serve as a contrast to Nic's triumph--either through the cinematography or the structure or the title or something--it doesn't. The unrealistically happy epilogue, in which Paul disappears and is forgotten about, reinforces Nic's victory. Cholodenko wants us to conclude that Paul was harmful. Though he only exacerbated preexisting problems, we are supposed to conclude that he created them. Though he could very well play a positive, albeit limited, role in the children's lives, we must conclude that this is an impossibility. As in the beginning, the family can only truly function if Nic is in complete control. "Thank you, Laser," but please shut up.

The Kids Are All Right is a scattered, confused, and rather offensive film. Lisa Cholodenko's cinematic condemnation of Paul is an accusation that men are at worst destructive influences or at best unnecessary. I know that many male filmmakers--and in fact men throughout history--
have been making some of the same accusations against women since the dawn of time. I know that in a majority of movies and books they don't even have to prove these accusations; they can simply assume them, like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with its sexist hero, its evil antifeminine villains, and its acclaim of mindless, men-praising prostitutes. But the solution to this unjust societal structure isn't to create a mere mirror image of hatred. A narrow-minded, mistaken condemnation of all men is no closer to reality, justice, or progress than all the misogynistic portrayals that have come before it. It does nothing to balance the scales, but merely upsets them.

What is to become of Laser, uninvolved and unimportant in the back seat of the car? Must he simply accept that he is purposeless? Joni might be "all right," but will Laser ever be?

A dramatically inert and cinematographically flavorless film, though The Kids Are All Right boasts a couple of fine performances (notably Mia Wasikowska and Julianne Moore) and a few interesting moments, its puzzling screenplay raises troubling questions that it no way attempts to answer.

The Kids Are All Right (2010)
d/w: Lisa Cholodenko
(Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo)

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