Friday, July 30, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

Last night, I ventured to the Upper East Side to catch one of the summer's biggest movies (well, in my world anyway). And no, I didn't gorge myself on another viewing of Sex and the City 2. This evening's feature was The Kids Are All Right, the new lesbian-family comedy starring Annette Bening and Julian Moore. The film centers on a close-knit, non-traditional family living in sunny California. Bening and Moore play mothers to two children, their oldest, a girl named after Joni Mitchell, about to venture off to college. At the prompting of her younger jock brother, Lazer (played by future heartbreaker Josh Hutcherson), Joni sneaks into her mothers' private papers in order to contact the sperm bank from which she and her brother received half of their chromosomes (imagine, a bank that deals solely in sperm). Following some secretive phone calls, their father is none other than Mark Ruffalo, still looking affably boyish, a restauranteur playboy who also likes to play gardner. Upon meeting their "Dad," the reluctant Joni finds a kindred spirit in her supposed father, while Lazer finds disappointment in his would-be male role model (though to be honest, Annette Bening does a fine a job at that - but more on that later). Before anyone knows it, Ruffalo is having dinner at their home, popping up on their iPhones, and eventually giving Moore's new gardening business its first "gig." The film is funny, witty, lavish in color and detail without being a special-effects epic or mere showcase for spectacle. The film shares a kindred spirit with the mise-en-scéne of fellow female director/writers Nancy Meyers (Something's Gotta Give, It's Complicated) and Nora Ephron (Julie and Julia), living in a world of candle-lit silhouettes, traipsing with interesting, personalized costume choices, and frame after frame and sumptuous looking food. This film (and the others mentioned) carry a certain, undeniable feminine look, soft, balanced, the beauty of a quiet blooming flower rather than the booming and stormy energies behind the works of Polanski, Scorsese, etc. (though my own little theory/assumption is delightfully overturned by Kathryn Bigelow's heartbreakingly stark The Hurt Locker).

Bening and Moore are at their finest as the power-lesbian couple, a pairing of two of America's finest and most sensitive actresses. They are also perhaps the two most deserving actresses, yet to win an Oscar (how, how can Hillary Swank have 2 Oscars, and these women have none). Though it's a little early to start playing the Oscar prediction game, one can relish in the fine work of this film's two leading ladies. Bening is stunning as the slightly butch Nic, a gynecologist with a booming career (at times a detriment to her relationship with partner Jules) and a taste for red wine. Looking and acting older than her lover, Bening captures a woman beginning to slowly lose touch with her children and her lover, the family she has worked so hard to build momentarily falling apart around her. One of my favorite and perhaps the most heartbreaking moment in the film occurs when Nic discovers that perhaps a little more than gardening has been happening at sperm-donor Paul's sprawling villa. Bening has been high-powered, high-strung career women for years, often to stunning results (note her two previous Oscar nominations), and while Nic certainly does share a thread with American Beauty's Carolyn or even the title character from Being Julia, Nic seems distinctly more balanced, more loving, less selfish and less controlling than these other women. Moore delights as the slightly loppy, hip Jules, the younger, "lipstick" partner, part stay-at-home Mom and part wandering career woman. While Bening typifies the 21st century power lesbian mother, Moore creates a character that is distinctly womanly, her matter of orientation a secondary characteristic. Her children about to leave the house and with no steady career to draw self-worth from, Jules is curious, restless, looking for some adventure in middle-age (and boy does a rugged looking Mr. Ruffalo give her just that).

This a unique film, and though not a big Hollywood release or popcorn blockbuster, it certainly lives in the mainstream, readily available to both metropolitan and middle America. While most of popular Queer and Gay cinema centers on gay men (Milk, Brokeback Mountain, Philadelphia) or men dressing as women (The Birdcage, Two Wong Foo, Priscilla Queen of the Desert), this is a woman's film, a film about two women in love, but more interestingly two women in love with a family. The film does not center on a battle of gay/straight or matters of acceptance or Pride pageantry, but rather tells the story of a modern family, growing and in transition. This is not necessarily a new story (Mom is getting older; the children leave the nest), but is told in a new way, a new setting that continues a greater portion of American family units. While we have not seen this story on the screen before, surely similar situations have happened to the children of gay parents before. The film flips our expectations, the parents gay and the children straight, a feeling of normalcy given to what was once queer. How refreshing to hear a story about homosexual people that does not center on AIDS, hate crimes, or drugged induced club experiences. This film (and surely many others that I have never seen) diversifies the canon of gay works, telling a new story that has certainly been there the entire time. How exciting to live at a time when we can go to the mainstream cinema and watch The Kids Are All Right or tune in to a weekly episode of Modern Family on ABC. This film is funny and brimming with feeling, heartfelt but not requiring too much tissue, a refreshing break from the cymbal crash of traditional summer blockbusters.

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