By Jack Halberstam
In the pre-punk, post-mod anthem “The Kids Are Alright” by The Who, Roger Daltry sings about leaving domesticity behind and moving on: “Sometimes, I feel I gotta get away/Bells chime, I know I gotta get away/And I know if I don’t, I’ll go out of my mind/Better leave her behind with the kids, they’re alright/The kids are alright.”
This song has been brilliantly covered by The Queers and The Ramones among others and has become part of the powerful legacy of The Who, a rock band that created the violent and dynamic foundations for punk, emo, for The Strokes, The White Stripes and a whole host of other genre-bending bands. Given the raucous power of the song and the anti-domestic sentiment it expresses, it sets expectations high for Lisa Cholodenko’s new film by the same name, and promises to deliver us from suffocating domesticity into some other arrangement of bodies, biology and desire. No such luck!
The Kids Are Alright is a soul-crushing depiction of long-term relationships, lesbian parenting and mid-life crisis. Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are mushed into one category by their kids Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska) who call them “moms” or “the moms.” The moms have merged into one maternal entity and although they have distinct personalities, their parenting function is depicted as one amorphous smothering gesture after another. The kids suffer through the over-parenting but crisis ensues when Laser decides to track down his sperm donor dad, Paul, played by Mark Ruffalo. Once Paul rides onto the scene on his classic black BMW motorcycle, bearing organic veggies and good wine, the cracks in the façade of lesbian domesticity appear and a rather predictable cycle of betrayal, infidelity and domestic upheaval begins.
Obvously the mise-en-scene for The Kids are Alright is rife with narrative and dramatic possibilities and the film is being hailed as a universal depiction of the travails of long-term relationships. The acting is fine and nuanced throughout and yet the film is depressing and sadly trades in stale stereotypes about lesbians in particular. While Cholodenko’s first film played against stereotype by setting its lesbian drama in a drugged out world of high-art, this film loads sexual inertia, domestic dowdiness and bourgeois complacency onto the lesbian couple and leaves the sperm donor dad in the enviable position of being free, cool and casually sexual. Early on in the film, Jules and Nic watch gay porn while making a grand effort to have sex – in this cringe-worthy scene, Jules goes under the covers to go down on Nic who keeps watching the bad porn with no particular desire. Eventually we hear the whirr of a vibrator but still there is no money shot (either in the bed or on the TV screen), no real desire between the two women and we don’t even see flesh! Cut to Paul making love to a gorgeous African American woman, one of his employees no less, with much gusto, much nakedness and free abandon. Ok, we get the picture, long-term relationships struggle with desire, short term involvements struggle with commitment. The long-term couple may not have great sex but they do have the family and togetherness, the single guy has great sex and lots of it but no one to go home to.
While the film’s moral outcome is supposed to favor the women and leave Paul out in the cold, it actually delivers, whether the film means to or not, a scathing critique of gay marriage. If the message here is “see gay marriages are just like straight ones – we all face the same problems,” then surely the outcome of the film would be the end of marriage, the desire to find other kinds of arrangements that work? But no, this film, like many a heterosexual drama that turns the family inside out only to return to it at the film’s end, shows that marriage is sexless, families turn rotten with familiarity, lesbians over parent and then it asks us to invest hope into this very arrangement.
The Kids Are Alright is beautifully acted and has moments where it gets everything right – the awkwardness between Paul and Joni and Laser, for example, at their first meeting; the anger sparked by Paul trying to step in and offer parenting advice to Nic – she responds: “I need your advice like I need a dick up my butt!” possibly the best line in the film – the irritation between Nic and Jules as they try to absorb the daddy-come-lately into their family unit. But all the acting in the world cannot save a conservative script from its own conclusions. And so, even though the film is quite good at showing how superfluous and redundant the father role has become in an era of the supermom, by refusing to distinguish between the “moms” and by not making much of a gender distinction between Nic (vaguely butch) and Jules (vaguely femme), we are left with too much mothering and a sense that fatherhood is necessary to intervene in the cloying attentions of maternal love. In one stinging exchange, Laser is leaving for the evening and both moms reach out their arms to him asking for hugs. Laser says to Nic – “hug her,” meaning Jules, “that’s what she’s there for!” It is a laugh line for sure but it somehow seals the moms in asexual pathos and interferes with our ability to really identify with them. As Laser leaves, we want to leave with him: as they songs says, “I know I gotta get away, and I know if I don’t, I’ll go out of my mind.”
There are parts of the movie that fuel the disdain that the audience might begin to feel for the moms – we are not given enough info about the basis for their original love and attraction – a quick story about how they met refers to flirtatious attraction between the two but this is a sexual energy that we are told about rather than shown. At the same time, Paul’s effect on women is shown but not told – he does not charm or romance women, with no action on his part, women simply throw themselves at him. This naturalization of his sexual power and the naturalization of the lack of charisma of the moms again stabilizes a grid of desire that always tips in favor of male heterosexuality and leaves lesbians stranded. With the scales tipped this way, it becomes inevitable that Jules will sleep with Paul, that she will become dick-obsessed, that Nic will be cast as the sad, slightly butch partner who loses out to the dynamic, phallic dad. Again, this could have been played differently – Nic could have been a butch; she would have been much more likely in fact to ride the BMW motorbike than Paul (classic beemers are a popular queer choice of motorcycle in fact); she could have been phallic with a dildo instead of flaccid with a vibrator. I am not saying that the lesbian relationship should have been positive and male heterosexuality should have been slammed – but I am saying that Cholodenko is working the well-worn grooves of the cinematic depiction of lesbian desire as a flickering flame always on the verge of extinction and of lesbian-male rivalry as always a mismatch.
Finally, if The Kids Are Alright wanted to weigh in on the gay marriage debate by saying that marriage sucks anyway and here’s a realistic depiction of what long-term relationships look like, I could live with that. If the film wanted to take a hard look at lesbian parenting and refute the idea that too many moms spoil the broth, I would have embraced that. If it wanted to offer a critique of fatherhood as always too little too late, I would have applauded that. But to give us cloying lesbian moms, charismatic fathers, inert long-term relationships and then to tell us to accept it, get used to it and like it or lump it…well, why? Also, why does Julianne Moore have to be dowdy – she is a luminescent actress in most of her films; even when she is playing frigid housewives, as she does for Todd Haynes, Moore is gorgeous. But suddenly, when she is a femme lesbian, she loses her looks! Annette Bening is great as always, and except for a slightly embarrassing scene involving a Joni Mitchell song, her acting carries the film a long way.
A couple of moments of casual racism in the film (the depiction of the Latino gardener as a half-wit and the African American restaurant hostess as voracious) remind us that this is a deeply conservative film. Perhaps the right anthem for this film is not “The Kids Are Alright” given that the kids seem not to be all right but “My Generation” – in this song the “kids” tell the parent culture to fade away, not to try to understand them but to leave them to their “strange” teenage activities. The key line, of course, is a kind of anti-oedipal refusal of a futurity in which the kids become the adults: “things they do look awful cold/hope I die before I get old.” The protest here is not against old people but against a form of aging that involves giving up on life, lust, change and that means settling in for the long haul. If I learned anything from Cholodenko’s film, it is that trading in sex for comfort, change for stability, and improvised relationships for marriage are all bad deals and if we don’t change the social structures we inherit, we are doomed to repeat them.