Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Kids Are All Right, but...

What about the mums?

I was really looking forward to seeing this film for all kinds of reasons. Firstly, I have a heterosexual girl-crush on Julieanne Moore (who doesn't, I ask you) and, as someone who's dabbled in the art/craft/torture of screenwriting, have dreamt of the day when Annette Benning is cast in one of my films. (OK. First I need to get one made. But, then, the moment that happens, I have no doubt Annette will come running.) Plus, Mark Ruffalo is yummy in all the right ways.

But mostly because it's about time that this increasingly visible kind of family is acknowledged in popular culture in an intelligent and considered way.

So the synopsis is simple enough: The two children (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) of a lesbian couple - one born to each mother but with the same father - decide they want to meet their sperm-donor dad. There's the obvious discomfort and uncertainty when these middle class, smart and sophisticated women learn of their kids' desires, but both mums are doing their best to be understanding and patient with what is, at this point in their lives, a difficult and fraught decision.

The meeting, when it happens, is delightfully believable. Awkward silences, overcompensating gestures, and the squirming humiliation all adolescents display when they can see their parents trying too hard. Good fun and very believable. And not so far from what any meeting of adoptive and biological parents might look like. I liked that part the most - how similar the arrangement, and how irrelevant, ultimately, the gender breakdown is when it comes down to love. Loving parents are loving parents. Biology has its place in the parenting process, but family is really about who's there, night and day, day after day, loving and caring, talking and fighting, growing and learning, living and dying. Basically, it's about being together.

So far so good. And then a weird thing happens...

********************SPOILER ALERT*****************

Scroll down for the rest.

Struggling with strained relations with her wife, Jules (Julieanne Moore) gets involved with Paul (Ruffalo), the donor dad, first, as his landscaper, and then, well, kind of as his landscaper again. But a different landscape altogether.

Basically, they screw. A lot, it has to be said.

This is where the film loses me. While, from a storytelling perspective, it answers the important dramatic question we're supposed to ask when dealing with story arcs - Find the worst thing that could happen to your main character and make it happen - it slides into that murky, chauvenstic old chestnut that argues that all lesbians really need is some solid man flesh. (I had a quicker, sharper ending to that sentence, but resisted the impulse.) Basically, that belief that lesbians are somehow missing out on something essential to human sexuality as long as they persist with this whole lesbian thing.

The film's message isn't as simple as this, of course. Nor do I think it's even the writer's intention, interestingly. The film spends a lot of time giving these amazing women real consideration and pathos in the process of making very difficult decisions. Jules experiences much angst and guilt associated with this tryst, which Paul is taking to heart in a way that she is not. He's ready to settle down, see - catalysed by his kids' appearance in his life. He dumps his easy lay, focuses on changing his life, and embraces this strange but intoxicating mantle of fatherhood with impressive, if naive enthusiasm. The kids like him a lot, and their relationship with Paul changes into something real and substantial over the time they spend together.

The result is that Paul sees this relationship with Jules as the beginning of his "family" - now that he's ready to have one. She sees it as a reaction to the hurtful things her wife has been saying and, it must be said, seems as much about getting her rocks off with someone who couldn't be more different from her wife if he tried.

Of course, the deceipt is the killer, but not just between Jules and Nic (Benning), although the betrayal is fraught enough. (Not just an affair, but an affair with a man, and not just any man, but the father of their children, and not just... It goes on.) The clincher is what Paul and Jules seem not to have factored in - the betrayal their children feel, and their subsequent guilt that they have somehow brought Paul and Jules together. In effect, threatening to destroy their family.

The performances are lovely. Wasikowska and Hutcherson display just the right amount of uncertainty in this new life that they feel partly responsible for creating, mixed in with all the completely normal (horrid but inevitable) adolescent angst that plagues any family with two teenagers making their way in the world.

There are several funny/painful moments, particularly Nic's drunken rendition of Joni Mitchell at the dinner table right on top of the moment she realises Jules's betrayal. This is truly squirmworthy storytelling. Nic is so vulnerable in that moment - passionate, loving, open and in pain - so completely different to how we've seen her until then, made all the more excruciating by her refusal to let up, even after the point is made. Her lilting, husky rendition of the lullaby persisting in the face of prolonged and awkward silences... Really powerful stuff.

I just wish Jules had not so desperately and urgently embraced heterosexual lust as though it were somehow better or more than what she had known with her wife. While it was most likely intended as a comment on how stale and tired a long marriage can become, and how fresh and intoxicating new love/lust can be, particularly the forbidden kind, the fact that he was a he, and the father of her son, gave it a layer that, I feel, undid a good chunk of the subtlety and respect the writers had shown this non-mainstream but unquestionably loving family.

But the ending is extremely satisfying and in some way compensates for that aberration of a midpoint.

See it or rent it because it's worth it - funny, smart, different and sophisticated - but I'm still waiting for a time when a lesbian family graces our films without the patriarchal/heterosexual hangover anywhere to be seen.

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