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.
84 replies on “The Kids Aren’t Alright!”
Thanks Jack! I’ve been waiting for a more critical review since A. O. Scott’s dribble in The New York Times!
Nice work, JH!
thanks JT 🙂
I found it oddly heartening that after a couple of decades in the same relationship and two kids I have a better sex life than Julianne Moore and Annette Bening. I don’t think that was the intended message of the film, however.
Jack, you’re spot on here. I would add, though, that as someone whose life in some ways is very similar in its outlines to the couple in the film (with some exceptions: less money, younger kids, we both work full-time, East Coast) much of the way the texture of their relationship was represented resonated quite deeply with me. I’d say, too, that while I wouldn’t argue that monogamy is in any way superior to other kinds of emotional and sexual relationship, and compulsory monogamy is destructive any way you slice it, there are pleasures in long-term relationships that don’t have to entail the stifling of sexual and emotional expression, even in the context of sexual exclusivity. You’re right that Cholodenko’s film strongly implies that “settling in for the long haul” means “giving up on lust, life, change,” but accepting the putative truth of that exchange suggests to me that you’re assuming that “marriage” (for lack of any better word) has to be what hetero/homonormativity has told us it is.
After too many heartbreaking images of gay women at the hands of Hollywood, I’m afraid I just can’t bring myself to see the film, even w/ (or perhaps because of) these mainstream stars playing us. But perhaps the greater barrier for me is, again, the insistent depiction of privileged lives onscreen and the notion that women’s lives still center, dramatically, around men. (Nice to catch up with you, Sarah!)
Thank you Jack for hitting the nails on their tiny heads. The film was depressing, the message even more so. Why does ‘naturalization’ (presumably the intention of the director) have to involve validation of heteronormativity? The kids were in fact the only ones who came out ‘all rigfht’, buoyed perhaps by their contempt for their right-on ‘moms’ and brief brush with the patriarchy represented by the slacker sperm-donor who spawned them. I resent the depiction of motherhood, the work that ‘marriage’ is made to do in this film (which bore only a tangential relation to any long-term relationship I’ve ever been in) and the ways in which it marks ‘gay marriage’ or indeed any partnership in terms of lack–of desire, sex, legitimacy for sure but also humor, hope, recognition. I may have to kill myself just thinking about it.
Jack, one of the underlying problems your review illuminates is how impossible it is to make work at the highest level of production value, recognition and reward, unless it contains the messages you articulate.
If lesbian artists want to work under conditions that their inferior straight or gay male colleagues are permitted, they are forced to meet the devil at the Crossroads. I certainly understand the exhaustion this creates, and can understand the impulse to do “what you have to do” in order to have that mainstream experience. It is human and reasonable given that we each have only one life.
The recent Terry Gross interview with Lisa was a perfect example of how this gets enforced. Gross asked her if she had been criticized for not casting lesbian actresses – this of course implies that the mean lesbians will jump on you while the straight world is kind and neutral- but also, it’s a false question. The real question is: given how impossible it is for lesbian actresses to reach the level of stardom afforded Moore and Benning, isn’ she forced – by systemic homophobia- to cast straight actresses if she wants A-list?
Gross also never asked the most important question of all: If there was no straight male primary character, if the film was not constructed around a male/female dichotomy and if the lesbian didn’t sleep with the straight man, would the film have been produced and rewarded on this level?
At the same time: KUDOS to Lisa Cholodenko for getting her film made with such a great cast and getting this far. It’s a great achievement regardless of the censorship issues. And it’s inspiring! I’m impressed and excited for her.
Finally, I want to say that it is important to distinguish between what an artist wants to say and how a piece of work is received. An artist should be able to make any piece of work, any way they want it- the problematic is when certain ideological content is equated with quality, and other content is disparaged and censored. It’s the reception that’s worth critiquing, not the artist’s impulse to express whatever is on her plate.
Sarah: absolutely, this film could only have been made in this form – it repeats the L Word triangulations of lesbian couples intersecting with the randy straight guy – a story that seemingly everyone but anti-marriage queers love!! The film also punishes the one slightly butch, unambivalent lesbian character, Nic, and it never really explains why Jules goes back to the marriage after it has been depicted as sexless and boring! I am happy to congratulate Lisa Cholodenko for getting the film made and certainly she is entitled to her story, her success and so on. But given that the film takes so few risks, formally, narratively or otherwise, it seems reasonable to offer a critique – the film fits perfectly into the national common sense narrative about marriage and gay marriage and surely it is our job, i.e. “our” as in critics and writers, to disrupt some of these complacent narratives….?
[[ and it never really explains why Jules goes back to the marriage after it has been depicted as sexless and boring! ]]
Does it have to? Can’t we draw those conclusions on our own? Are you in a LTR? Do you have children? I think if you did, you may understand why . . .
Gotta disagree with you on a few points. I think there’s a danger in seeing “conservative” forces – the gay marriage, the freewheelin’-guy vs domestic-women, the racism – as values “received” from a dominant straight matrix. Straight folks are surely not the exclusive purveyors of gender and racial stereotypes (or of mainstream filmic criteria). Queer folks are not all committed to anti-familial autonomy, and don’t “naturally” succeed at lifelong great sex. Peering into the Nic and Jules characters, I see a difficult blend of queer independence and investments in established structures such as monogamy and defined gender roles. A love and disdain for dominant, received values; a love and disdain for queer alternatives.
Holding queer lives to be essentially transgressive (and straight ones to be cohesive and legible) seems to hold all of us to a narrow set of values. I think that in fact we all are all invested in the social and psychic structures we’re enculturated with, just as we all rail against them to be our own unique and independent selves.
In the characters of Jules and Nic, I can see queer defiance. (They critique traditional gender roles, they embrace all sexual orientations and perhaps even fluid orientations, and they aren’t afraid of sex toys. Careerism is optional.) Certainly, they also uphold elements of a “mainstream.” (They pay taxes, wish to be legible as women, speak common English, and want kids. Nic hates composting.) The tension between these is strong. To be sympathetic, I expect it must be hard for them to stay sexually vibrant while also being monogamous. It must be hard to cultivate their own personalities while supporting their family.
I didn’t love the movie. Like you, I wished for more backstory and character depth. But my critiques are not about the ambivalence the characters display. I think their ambivalence is realistic, and perhaps – in its resistance to strict definition – preeminently queer. But if there is a conservative “enemy,” it is certainly within all of us. Transcending that conservatism is also an ability we all have. Nic & Jules are not role models, but they do illustrate an honest complexity.
You are absolutely right that there is no one to one relation between queers and transgression and heterosexuality and conservatism. I think it is more a question, as Sarah Schulman suggests below, of which stories about which kind of ambivalence get made and why. Why this story? and given that we seem to be stuck with this story about the universality of marriage and its struggles, why don’t we come to the conclusion in the films itself, within its own logic, that marriage may not be a good thing after all? My objection is not to the story of a marriage but to the idea that no matter how bad it looks, we must endorse marriage and in doing so, we are somehow changing the world!
I agree with most of what you say, Jack. However, I see Nic and Jules as two very distinct characters. Sure, they have presented a unified front for their children which sometimes makes them seem similar, but I there were many many moments where Jules and Nic departed in their styles when dealing with the kids and with each other. Though I believe that Nic and Jules have similar understandings about desire, I could not imagine Nic talking as openly with Laser about that desire as Jules does.
More to the point, I think that what Jules and Nic reveal is how long term relationships (5+ years) affect partners differently. One of the elements that I enjoyed about this film is the fact that Nic seems to turn inward while Jules moves outward in order to deal with the difficulty with having to deal with what happens to desire 10 years after the initial attraction. I think that Jules speech to the family near the end about LTRs being dirty and hard and ugly is a point well taken. Nic’s reaction to this speech says it all: she cries silently after Jules walks away. Ultimately, I do not see a valorization of LTRs or monogamy. Rather, I see two lesbians who have to reconceptualize their relationship to each other and to desire.
I think that this film reveals another possibility for understanding desire and LGBT relationships that is rarely explored in main stream film: How desire sometimes conflicts in difficult ways with commitment.
Guys — I haven’t yet seen the film, but wanted to say that I’ve never seen a level of discussion so outstanding on a blog before. Is it always like this chez bullybloggers?
It’s nice to see that closed-minded homophobes aren’t the only ones who insist on perpetuating gay stereotypes and exhibiting paranoia. You do quite a nice job of it yourself!
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.
Insisting that there be a strong gender distinction between two people of the same gender suggests there’s something wrong with lesbians who choose not to identify as 100% butch and the other to be 100% femme. Thankfully, most of us (outside of high school or college) don’t feel trapped by these restrictions anymore. We can be, as these characters are, less restricted by “gendered” roles. Regardless, there was plenty distinction between the two moms…professionally, in their household roles, and in how they interacted with the kids.
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?
Your presumption is that if the film featured a straight couple rather than a gay one, they would have divorced rather than work things out. However, 1) there’s no over-arching rule that suggests on-screen straight couples inevitably break up when there’s infidelity, in fact, in most films they stay together (e.g. The Godfather, Casablanca, The Prince of Tides, etc.). 2) From a narrative standpoint, it would make no sense for Nic and Jules to separate. They wanted to be together, and their commitment to their life together was apparent throughout the film, even if their behavior sometimes belied that. 3) Infidelity stories tend to be more interesting when people hurt each other and choose to stay together despite that. Hurt followed by divorce is tidy. Hurt, followed by the choice to stay with what hurts is compelling.
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!
Julianne Moore has never been afraid to play roles that depict her as messy or aging in an unflattering way (e.g. Blindness, Hannibal, Single man, etc.). Regardless, would it really make sense for her, playing this particular character, to look as she did in “Far From Heaven” (in which, by the way, she was not “frigid,” but married to a gay man who didn’t want her)?
Very well said, thanks.
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Haven’t seen the film yet as I live in the sticks (Styx?) of Connecticut, and we never get anything promptly. But one of the questions this review raises is: although the critique of gay marriage is well-developed, why are have we been so hesitant to pursue critiques of the gay parenting boom, and they ways it depends on economic, racial and (see below) the privileges bestowed by living within a normative gender paradigm?
I am unequivocally aligned for children and against parents anyway, with some exemptions for parents who rise above the normal run of things. But when I hear about the reasons queer folk have for bearing children they can be (usually are) pretty horrifying, as well as being conventional. Some of the things you comment on in the film are effects of that, certainly, but I have heard many prospective parents say some version of what one close friend said explicitly: that she wanted to have a baby because she was committed to a long-term relationship, but not altogether sure what they would talk about in ten years, or really have in common, without having a child to raise.
Furthermore, the celebration of lesbian parenting in particular has a tendency to obscure the ways that, until very recently, “Lesbian mother” was a legal paradox; and also the ways in which trans people who pursue gender reassignment are often legally prevented from retaining relationships with their children.
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[…] lesbians have, and the much more dynamic and exciting sex that the unencumbered donor enjoys. Some queer bloggers are annoyed about the contrast between the lesbo sex and the straight sex, but to me it’s about LTR sex […]
I was disappoint with how the 2 actresses who usually are great, acted like 2 straight women playing lesbians. I felt embarrassed watching this movie that was suppose to depict me and my generation. The movie seemed to just do more damage by portraying lesbians in the typical negative stereotype, asexual lesbians, over-processing, bitchy nagging middle-aged frustrated women.
The only thing not typically lesbian was Jules sleeping with a straight man. When she says, “I’m a lesbian” and hangs up the phone. I wonder why she doesn’t say that before the frolic in bed.
As I watched little if any of the relationship between Nic and Jules rang true. As I listened to the reaction of the audience I could hear predictable laughing and snickers from the the predominately straight older audience.
The movie theater was packed, but I think Cholodenko made a film for mainstream America Hollywood box-office, perpetuating lies and mis-information, not a movie based on reality.
I totally agree with you alcovia. Well expressed. I found this to be a very disturbing depiction of lesbian Moms. And it is further disturbing to me how straight people are gobbling it up. All I can wonder is maybe their secret fascination with lesbians was shattered with this film and now they can breathe a sigh of relief about not being threatened by us.
Annoying as it is to see you putting such weight in the mothers’ looks, it is good to see a sober look on the move. Not I’ve viewed it myself, but from what I’ve heard so far, this seems to be a repeat of “Philadelphia” – a movie that is edgy for this year and paraised for it, but will develop into an old shame for reviewers as the patterns that you saw become visible in hindsight. We just never learn, do we?
This movie couldn’t hold a candle to Philadelphia. It is not or will not ever even be in the same league. I suggest you see it before any further comment.
The Kids Are MORE THAN All Right
Reaction to The Kids Are All Right among lesbians seems to be very polarized.
Some dykes love it, others loathe it. I have not heard any reactions in the middle. Unfortunately many of my queer friends are completely avoiding the film because they don’t like the premise, a lesbian in a long-term relationship ends up having sex with a man.
I call this the Tootsie syndrome. Do you remember the movie Tootsie? In it Dustin Hoffman is an unemployable actor who has to dress in drag to get his first great part. The controversy at the time was that the best woman in the film was a man pretending to be a woman. I thought Tootsie was hilarious, in the tradition of Some Like it Hot, and Bringing Up Baby. It is a screwball comedy; get over yourself if you don’t understand that the premise is a springboard for the comedy.
The Kids Are All Right is also a comedy, and it is really funny, though not in the screwball tradition.
Charges leveled against it are that the lesbians are stereotypes. I did not see this and I welcome clarification on exactly how. I thought they were both complex, well drawn character, although Nic definitely has a drinking problem. That could be part of their difficulties connecting as a couple. Refer to the bath seduction scene when Nic leaves for a phone call, but more importantly, I think, for another glass of wine.
Another charge is that it is racist. The Latino gardener some think is portrayed as a half-wit. I did not see it that way. My grandmother was Latina and she was as wily as they come. The gardener was on to the fact that Jules was fooling around with Paul and he was annoying her on purpose. Refer to the shot early on when he sees that Paul is looking from the balcony down at Jules sexy panties and the look the gardener gives him.
Jules treatment of the gardener (sorry I can’t remember his name) is horrible, just the same way that her having sex with Paul is horrible.
It is a betrayal of fairness, for the gardener, and a betrayal of her relationship with Nic. I wanted at some point for her to apologize or somehow acknowledge her mistreatment the gardener but it is film about Jules and Nic, not that. Paul’s relationship with the African-American hostess is also cited as being racist. That I do not get. This guy will fuck any attractive female that comes his way. The hostess likes sex too, how is that racist?
Too much is expected of this film. One movie with lesbian mothers in the lead will not, and cannot change society. I think what is important is support a film, with a beautiful script (although it is not politically correct) that takes the premise of a lesbian family as a done deal, directed and written by an out lesbian.
Now that is progress!
A few responses to this last comment:
1) I know this film is supposed to be a comedy but I found very few laugh lines and in fact it seemed to confirm some old notion of lesbians lacking a sense of humor.
2) The racism is casual and unexamined – Paul has sex with the Black woman and we see it quite explicitly but we see far less of any other sex scene – this feeds into stereotypes about Black voraciousness. Also, when it comes time for a relationship, Paul is not interested at all in the smart, beautiful Black woman, she is discarded for the neurotic white woman. But why is the white woman relationship material and the black woman is not? The gardener, on the other hand, is just deployed as a comic witness. He has no real subjectivity.
3) Being over-burdened with expectations is not an excuse for bad film-making, sorry, but we should not be so desperate for representation that it is enough to have a film about a lesbian family directed by a lesbian. Please let’s have some standards beyond pure volume of representation! Jack
1) I can’t address your inability to find any “laugh lines” in the film. It certainly did not contain sit-com, “laugh line.” The humor was more subtle. You did not find it funny, okay. Lots of other people did
2) Paul’s sex with Jules is just a graphic as his sex with the black woman. Paul is interested in a relationship with Jules because she is the biological mother or one of his off spring and the mother/mother of another. Jules represents for him the ideal of family, that is lacking in his hedonistic lifestyle.
I think that is made very clear when Nic confronts him and says, this is not your family, this is my family (or something like that)
It is not a black white issue, I don’t see why you would frame it that way. The girlfriend (who happens to be black) is a casual sex partner–one of a long line, the movie suggest. Paul is equally not interested in the other casual character who happens to be white, who makes suggestive comments relating to produce.
Smart black woman v neurotic white woman–that is strange way to describe it. In general your comments about Nic and Jules have been uniformly negative, while many people find them flawed but attractive characters.
I don’t understand your comment about the gardener, yes he is a comic foil, but as I elucidated before, he is on to what is happening.
3) In no way shape or form is this film bad film-making. It has a great script, great acting and is beautifully shot. How is that bad film-making. Please explain.
It leaves a bad taste in the mouth of radical queers, I get that. It is not ground-breaking, or experimental in any way. But it is a very well made, thoughtful film, with too much straight sex for my taste, but a good film.
You have a very condescending tone, Jack. You better take a look at that. I (we) are not so desperate for representation. Why are you so into bashing this film and anyone who likes it?
Helen: You seem to hear as “condescending” any disagreement with your point of view. You claimed that we should support a film that frames the lesbian parenting arrangement as unremarkable, that has been directed by a lesbian and that has a good script. I don’t feel an obligation to support a film that sells out the more radical potential for queer sociality to a rather tired notion of sexless lesbians. I didn’t think the script was so great but I do think it was well-acted. The characters, like Paul, were quite limited and well, I have said the rest in my review. I am glad you think it was a good film, I can agree with you to the extent that there is SO much crap around nowadays, so many bad and repetitive action flicks and hetero rom. coms. Cholodenko is generally a really great director. This was just not her finest hour in my humble opinion….
I think you summed it up with “One movie with lesbian mothers”. Therein may be the reaction and the high expectation of the film. If there were “many’ movies about lesbian mothers to have a variety of views of this type of family, the response to it would be less noticed. The issue here is that there is much more at stake in the lives of women who raise children in our society. And the ones who don’t have rights in all corners of the country need a few advocates clearing the damage done by this media depiction.
I don’t feel that it is ‘progress’ when a lesbian director falls short on telling a story that has been compromised in the name of ticket sales. I do think it shows the result of a male dominated industrys impact on a women director who, by the way, collaborated with a man in writing the script ( you need to do a litte more research on the writers). And the male infusion really shows!!
I’m so peeved by all this criticism of the movie that I have to respond to a few points separately:
[[ Nic and Jules are mushed into one category by their kids Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska) who call them “moms” or “the moms.” ]]
Well, they are, indeed, moms. It’s very common for lesbians to use mama and mommy as their names, but what teenager still calls their mother either of those names? No, tweens and teens use “mom” and usually it’s accompanied by an eyeroll.
[[ The acting is fine and nuanced throughout and yet the film is depressing and sadly trades in stale stereotypes about lesbians in particular. . . .Early on in the film, Jules and Nic watch gay porn while making a grand effort to have sex. . . no real desire between the two women and we don’t even see flesh! ]]
Yes, and this is the reality for a LOT of lesbians (and a LOT of heterosexuals in long-term relationships)! This film is resonating with so many people (of all sexualities) because so many people are living this experience. Long-term relationships are hard. Parenting leaves you with little energy. Motherhood isn’t exactly sexualized. We have to work so much to make it in this economy, that we have no energy for sex. And on and on. This isn’t a stereotype; this is a reality for many, many people. And this portrait is not about lesbians v. straight men. It’s about coupled-people v. single people; Female sexuality v. male sexuality.
[[ 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? ]]
This makes no sense. Why would the outcome “surely” be a breakup? Many heterosexuals (and gay couples) face infidelity. Many, many women choose to stay with their spouses even after an affair. The film is simply showing that gay marriage is no more perfect, nor any less complicated, than straight marriages. The decision to stay or go is complicated. And, when you have children, the decision to break up is even more complicated. Do you have kids, Jack?
[[ …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. ]]
Sooooo, on one hand you’re bashing the film for playing into stereotypes, etc, but now you’re saying that there needs to be more of a butch/femme dynamic? As if THAT isn’t the stereotype that heterosexuals have of lesbians? Why must there be a gender distinction between Nic and Jules? Couldn’t they both be extremely femme? Or both butch? Or, just how they are? People like that have children too! It’s not some indication that a man is needed; it’s just who they are.
[[ 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. ]]
This has little to do with lesbians, but rather just male/female sexuality in general. Straight women fall victim to the same thing in movies as well.
[[ 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. ]]
But, let’s not stereotype, heh???? Maybe they should have cast Lea Delaria, so that your masculine/feminine needs would have been satisfied?
[[ 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! ]]
Um, because she’s playing a middle-aged mother. And, most middle-aged mothers are not looking like fabulous, gorgeous movies stars. They just look like ordinary people. Leave NYC for awhile, why dontcha? We’re lucky she wasn’t wearing mom jeans! Mothering is hard – it takes your energy. If she looked like a million bucks it woudln’t be realistic.
I realize you’re not in NYC – I just mean, leave your bubble. Most women, especially middle-aged mothers, do not look like Julianne Moore in most of her movies. She looks like a million bucks. The fact that they look more like ordinary people makes it more realistic.
AnnoyedMuch: you seem to have a lot invested in this film. Let’s remember it is a film though and NOT real life. I was responding to the way the film framed certain arrangements and questions and dynamics, and I was considering whether this was the only way to frame them. My big argument really was about why you would depict a LTR in this way AND ask the audience to believe in it, invest in it and believe that the women will stay in it no matter what. I know that LTR’s often run out of steam (I am in one now and I have been in others), I know that children place a strain on relationships (yes, I parent), but I do believe strongly that we need to re-imagine how we do relationships and how we parent and I don’t think that it is inevitable that the LTR is sexless or that parenting always involves nuclear family arrangements. I don’t think that people should stay in LTR’s long after the sex runs out and I didn’t find the representation of lesbian mothering in this film very compelling and yes, I do think it feeds into stereotypes of suffocating double motherhood! And by the way, I think we should probably update our understanding of stereotyping nowadays – we are long past the age when butch/femme represented a hetero view of lesbians or a cultural dominant among lesbians. In fact, probably most people think of lesbians now, and stereotype them as two merged semi-feminine women. Butches are long out of style (sadly since, yes, I do identify as butch) and shows like The L Word repudiate the butch only to absorb the sexiness of gender variance into characters like Shane. In KIDS, Nic could have been played as a butch – she has short hair, a gender ambiguous name, she is not lured into sex with the straight guy and she confronts him and his macho arrogance a couple of times in the film. But Cholodenko steers well clear of actually naming Nic as butch and this has repercussions. Ultimately, parenting does take a lot of energy but it does not have to reduce everyone to dowdy, sexless, neurotic caretakers…I know you are saying let’s be realistic, but movies are not generally about real people being real, they are interventions into reality, they extend reality, they question reality, and at their best, they allow us to think outside of the frameworks of the real, common-sense and inevitability. Thanks for your input though, I enjoyed reading your response and I appreciate you reading my review!
re: the comedic elements vs not: when the kids are shown caught on the stairs- listening to Nic confront Jules about sex w. Paul, half the audience laughed and half tensely “oh no’ed”. But ALL responded in the small theater. Clearly some found humor where others identified, nervously concerned. Isn’t that-and all the commentary here- the sign of better art?
One thing I meant to say:
you say: “in fact it seemed to confirm some old notion of lesbians lacking a sense of humor” in what universe, according to who?
You have a very strange and outdated view of lesbians, and talk about stereotyping!
I loathed this movie.
I went in to the movie hoping to enjoy it (I had not read much press or seen many previews.) The scenes with the latino gardner was just unforgivable to me. Literally unforgivable, in that I never forgave the movie …for those scenes, and I was never able to relax or enjoy myself again.
If it had merely been Julianne Moore’s behavior to the gardner that was so awful, then I might have been able to forgive/understand the film. (I mean, flawed characters are often interesting, right?)
But it was not the character who was awful and racist, it was the film. That scene was played for laughs, and the mostly white audience in the theatre with me all laughed. I did not laugh. My heart stopped, and I felt nauseous from the callous way that this overly-privileged clueless white woman just fucked up the life of this latino man.
It was an awful moment, and I never forgave the movie for it. It cast a shadow over everything that followed, and made me despise the characters and the filmmaker.
She regretted it, though. Besides, I don’t think she “fucked up” anyone’s life. She fired a part-time worker on a short-term job, and she later regretted it deeply. I think they definitely bought it back.
I did not believe that she regretted it. She has a scene in bed with Mark Ruffalo where she says she regrets it, and if that had been the end of it, I might have been able to overlook this issue. But then later in the movie, Julianne Moore makes a glib remark (a lie) to Annette Benning about it, which is (once again) played for laughs, and which (once again) received laughs from the mostly white audience I saw it with.
And your dismissive comment about him being a “part-time worker on a short-term job” speaks volumes about how little you understand the lives of workers like him.
wow, alot to digest here.
i disagree with much of jack’s review,but appreciate the challenges to all the stereotypes in the movie.
i thought the “dick up my butt” line dropped flat, it was so awkward.
much of my trouble with the film was the conflict I felt by it trying to be a comedy and then going really serious. this too felt awkward and forced, like in order to get the movie made all these compromises had to be made. another real irritation for me was all the hetero sex and only stereotypical lesbian sex and for the easy laugh.
this could have easily been a great film with such a fantastic cast. it was beautifully shot and I could easily identify with the lesbian mom roles and the challenges of ltr/marriage which i thought were very realistic for this upper middle class white family.
obviously this film could not please everyone. and i say again that none of the stereotypes used in the film surprise me because the film actually got made in hollywood and got some distribution. in order to have a film that doesn’t stoop to these lows you have to have so much independent funding. just the way it still is in tinseltown. still i did enjoy the film, the actors, looking at annette bening and mark ruffalo, seeing moms and teens in an adult movie, most of the dialogue and sitting in a theatre with all queer women of one stripe or another!
Jack this is a quote from your response.
“sorry, but we should not be so desperate for representation that it is enough to have a film about a lesbian family directed by a lesbian.”
That is what I consider condescending not honest differences of opinion.
To Joseph De Filippis, I empathize with your point of view, although I think there is more than one way to interpret the scenes with the gardener. The Jules character in the film is dead wrong, and I believe the filmmaker condemns her for the way she treats him along with the audience. But I see how that could ruin the film for someone.
I’m sorry you felt that way. I am half Latino but I “pass” for white, people stare at me in disbelief when perfect Spanish comes out of my mouth, so I have observed a lot of horrible behavior towards Latinos unobserved.
I wish the director would clarify her intent.
Helen, thanks for the response, but I must disagree. I do not think that the filmmaker in any way condemns Julianne Moore’s character for her behavior. Frankly, I don’t think that the director even understood how reprehensible that behavior was. I mean, I am sure if asked the director would say something like “Oh yes, she was behaving badly”. But that is not the same thing as having any real appreciation for the consequences of this white woman’s actions. There is nothing in the film that makes me believe that the filmmaker has any appreciation for the fact that the gardener might very well have ended up hungry or homeless as a result of this privileged white woman’s behavior.
I think that the director was just as clueless and overly-entitled as the Julianne Moore character.
The director played the scene for laughs (“why are you making that face?” “What face — this is just my face” and “I think he has a drug problem”, etc.) These lines got laughs from the entire theater I saw it in. And those laughs sent shivers down my spine.
The director did not offer any perspective about the gardener that was substantially different from Julianne Moore’s character’s perspective. And, in the end, it was the perspective of an entitled white woman, unaware of her privilege and callously destroying the lives of the low-income people of color who have the misfortune to be dependent on her for work.
It was awful — and it was the director, not just the character, that was awful.
Bad bad movie. Depressingly so. I also felt this film played on “soft” racism, and gender/class creepinesses lurked just under its surface, as well–e.g. the mom who didn’t finish school, such a slacker, could only stay home and be a wife. Which leads me to dowdy–the moms both were (not just the wife), especially compared to the folks in the overflowing garden, Ruffalo included, with his fruits and wines. Yeah, parenting is hard work, but it’s usually very queer to love workers in their uniforms; since this film clearly doesn’t love the moms, and doesn’t see them as hot and fertile numbers, it’s also, I think, anti-queer and misogynistic.
A little query–the opening review here misnames the film as “The Kids are Alright”–same as the song. But the actual film name is “The Kids are All Right.” Thoughts about that small change? A typo/mistake by the filmmaker? Are the kids all right? Really? If so, which ones and in which circumstances?
I for one am psyched to spend my money contributing to Dixon Place where I may get to see queer boundary-flexing experimentation, or my local CineMental series that shows all kinds of work you won’t see on the big screen unless it’s film fest time at the Castro. Middle states folks should know that Netflix carries some of these films, too.
Let’s try to show some of our disappointment with the film, which I experienced before it even came out, by committing to support alternative work about and by fairies and gays and dykes and straights and earthlings that push us and challenge us, instead of the same old same old that Hollywood pumps out. These artists and venues need our help RIGHT NOW. Does anyone deserve to make the kind of money Benning and Moore make? I sure hope some of those salaries go to pay for art in public schools or a local writers’ series.
“And whatever I’ll do
will turn for ever into what I have done.” –Szymborska
If I accept at face value that
1) TKAA is a movie about a lesbian who has an affair because she is trapped in a stale marriage
2) the fact that the passionate and obviously satisfying affair was heterosexual is not important because sexuality is fluid
then the turning point in the story where Paul asks Jules to try to make their relationship work and she tells him (I’m paraphrasing here) “No because I am a lesbian,” is absolutely unbelievable.
Screenwriter needs to pick one story or the other.
Cholodenko was interviewed in The Journal of Bisexuality. She is well aware of the existance of bisexuals and bisexuality. The interviewer has stated that it is a well known fact that films which use the word “bisexual” simply do not get funded in Hollywood. I think she throws in a deliberate hint that the women are bi by having them watch gay male porn, but that was all she could do if she wanted to get her movie funded.
There are tons of women who engage in bisexual behavior, but identify as Lesbian, because they don’t want to face the hate and stigma, and they don’t realize there is a growing bisexual community.
Hmm…just because they watch gay male porn, doesn’t make them bi; an ex-gf was a gay male porn consumer, along with straight porn, lesbo porn etc…she just liked porn. Gay male was a fav of hers though, which I used to think unusual, until I read in ?I think? Deneuve in 80’s/90’s (now Curve) an article about how some lesbians love it. I would also think some bi women wouldn’t. Just sayin’….
Just got around to seeing this tonight and what a depressing experience it was. I totally agree with you, Jack, that all the potential butch juiciness in the movie accrued to Paul rather than Nic, and therein lies its total conservatism and failure (I also agree with the comments above on the film’s casual racism). In fact despite (because of?) Bening’s acting skills I just felt irritated whenever Nic entered the frame: who would dream of finding this controlling, socially awkward, sexless, uptight harridan attractive in a million years? Worst. Lesbian. Stereotype. Ever. At least give us a *reason* that Moore might be in love with her!
The movie reassures straights that lesbians do not in fact have sexier lives than them (phew – hence the almost universal approbation it’s receiving), and shows dykes that our lives can (indeed ought to) culminate in the sublime and normative anguish of having our precious and expensive families disintegrate as the children flee the nest. I for one cannot wait.
Wow this thread is crazy. Puts the bully in bully bloggers in some cases. Like the film, Jack has been attacked for trying to represent one perspective among many within a community that is, quite frankly, desperate for representation. I wanted to see this film so badly that I drove into Manhattan. Gasp. That being said, the main problem was the lack of sexual chemistry between women in a film that was supposedly about women who (at one point) were attracted to women. Nic and Jules should have gone out to dinner with some other a hot lesbian couple and Nic should have flirted her ass off with one of them. Why did they have those lame friends they went out to dinner with, who were those people? The one sex scene was terrible, embarrassing, awful, cringe worthy, but worst of all, silly. It was just a farce. They didn’t even have a seriously hot kiss! EVER! I totally agree with Jack about the telling vs showing. AO Scott’s review sucked and, oddly enough, the movie didn’t even open in Brooklyn (lesbian mom central) on it’s first weekend (fyi). Even though the film wasn’t perfect, I did leave the theater saying “well it’s about fucking time a silly mainstream movie was made about the unremarkable life of a lesbian couple.” It’s like Melissa Ethridge, when she became a pop star, no gay people had to own her anymore because she belonged to everyone. I don’t want to own this couple, but I will gladly give them to the masses to love. I will just go home and have my own sex scene.
Thank you for this great interpretation! One thing about queers and parenting: The lesbian “overparenting” read like one of the only genuine and correctly contrived aspects of the film. Queers raising children are in the bind of creating a productive, loving, “normal” household while at the same time instilling in the kids that their household is not perceived as normal by a bigger world.
The worst scenario I’ve seen is when queer parents act from guilt and the children sense their family is lesser than. This could have been the way the film went. Instead, there’s the overexplaining, overprotecting — which is really the opposite of the repression that guilt brings.
One of my favorite scenes (other than every moment with Mia Wasikowska who I loved from In Treatment) is when “the moms” (blech) explain the porn film. They tried, within character, to make a kid feel they are in a normal family when many people, places, things outside the family tell them they’re not.
I respectfully disagree that the “overparenting” in the movie was genuine and correct and that the only other option for the story was for Nic and Jules to parent out of guilt.
I would argue that rather than “normal,” Cholodenko (as was true throughout the movie) chose to present the most common and supercharged stereotypes.
First stereotype being that most important, meaningful conversations between lesbian/gay parents and their children center on porn and the question “Are you gay?”
Seriously? If the idea was to show that communication between the parents and the children in the movie was good, there were a lot of options rather than bringing up that loaded cliche.
The overprotecting played on (at least) two additional stereotypes– that children in non-traditional families are under tremendous pressure to achieve, and that children raised by two mothers will never be allowed to take any risks. The forbidden nature of and drama surrounding Paul’s motorcycle was hilarious only because it was so painful.
If that’s the story Cholodenko wanted to tell, that’s her business, but just like there are lesbians and lesbian relationships that are hot, there are also families with two mother that are not all cloying and creepy like the one in the movie.
[…] The film is wonderfully acted and expertly shot but for me that didn’t make up for the story line that seemed more conventional because I was sitting next to the unconventional John Waters. He thought it was a decent sitcom. My other seatmate started fidgeting, then harrumphing and finally yelling on the bike ride home, “For this we waited in line? And for thirty years? I’m a lesbian and I hated that movie.” A woman on the street stopped her and said she hated it too and sent her here. […]
I watched the movie “The Celluloid Closet” about the history of how LGBT people used to be represented in the movies. Yes, back in the 1950’s, queer people in films either went crazy (with or without becoming serial killers), died horribly, or were rescued by becoming straight. But this is 2010, and any two women in a relationship could be transwomen, bisexual, intersex who appear female, and any one of hundreds of combinations. To automatically assume that two women in a relationship are Lesbians is trans and biphobic from the start.
To the bisexual community, this movie merits a shrug. A Lesbian and a bisexual woman are in a long-term relationship which has grown stale. The bisexual woman is not looking for anyone else, but has a very tempting man waved in her face every day, and human nature takes over. What is upsetting is that people are boycotting a movie just because it has a bisexual in it. THAT is bigotry.
Jack, you talk about being transgressive. Where is it written that being monogamous, cisgendered, and monosexual is good, and everything else is bad? What if the sperm donor had moved in with them and formed a polyamorous family? And they were shown having hot threesomes? That would be truly transgressive, but I can only imagine the outcry. It’s sad that people feel such a need to stigmatize bisexuality, when studies show that half of all gays and Lesbians engage in bisexual behavior and up to a third of straight people. Perhaps if the GL’s accepted the B’s the straight people would identify as bisexual, and therefore queer, and then think how powerful the queer movement would be!
Kudos to Kate Clinton at the Huffington Post for directing me to this blog! I have yet to see this film. It will not be released until October in the UK. The entries here have given me much to contemplate.
I would like to add I don’t believe the lesbian community is reacting negatively toward bisexuality. Lesbians are objecting to the concept that any lesbian can easily switch teams if the right guy comes along. Its an offensive stereotype.
There is nothing wrong with bisexuality or sexual fluidity, but I don’t know if those issues are addressed in the film. The problem is that Julianna Moore’s character is established as a lesbian character, not a bisexual one in all the promotions of the film. Labels matter in a political sense.
Again its not bisexuality that is the problem, but rather the stereotype that lesbians will easily jump in bed with any guy given the right circumstances. It belittles the identity and concept of what it means to be a lesbian.
The definition the bisexual community uses for bisexuality is “the capacity to be sexually aroused by or romantically involved with either/all genders.” In other words, no, you don’t have to be dating a man and a woman at the same time to be bi, no, you don’t have to be exactly 50/50 gay/straight to be bi, no, you don’t flip from being straight to gay or the reverse when you move from dating an opposite sex person to a same sex one, because as a bisexual you always have the capacity to be interested in both.
Let me give an example. A straight friend of mine was not attractive to the ladies, but men found him attractive. He didn’t have a homophobic bone in his body, had a high sex drive, and was practical, so he thought he would give men a try. But no matter what men did to him, he could not get aroused, because he is genuinely straight. Similarly, I was talking to a woman from the Straight Spouses Network (a support group for women married to gay men). No matter what she did to her husband, he could not get aroused, because he is 100% gay. Jules clearly is highly aroused by Paul; she is not raped. She may identify as Lesbian, but physically she is bisexual. So again, this film is being boycotted because it has a bisexual in it, and the bisexual community is very offended about that.
We in the bisexual community see this ALL the time. If I had a dollar for every Lesbian who has confessed to me secretly that she knows that she is bisexual, but she identifies as Lesbian, because (fill in excuse here), I’d be rich. Again, if you read my earlier comment, Cholodenko knew what she was doing. If she had flat-out portrayed Jules as bisexual, the prejudice against bisexuals is so bad her movie would not have been funded.
But even though bisexuals were yet again erased in this movie, I enjoyed it and will probably go see it again. We have fought long and hard for marriage equality, and I think it was a brilliant move to make it one of the first things queers would fight for. I completely disagree with the cetral tenant of this review, that queers should be transgressive; that’s exactly what gets us hated, feared, beaten up, and killed. When I watched this movie, most of the audience appeared straight, and I think movies like this, that show them that we can be downright BORING too, that we can have loving long-term marriages, raise kids who are alright, have jobs, go out to dinner, be just like everyone else, are a vital step on us all not ending up like Matthew Shepard.
I agree with most of what you say, but I admire the film for one major reason: Nic didn’t change who she was when she found out she’d been betrayed. I don’t know if that necessarily speaks to the hetero versus homo comparison, but it certainly speaks to the cliche versus non-cliche drama. She was who she was; she tried to make an effort at dinner — and a grown-up would do that — but she didn’t buy a bird-feeder for Paul’s garden or buy a motorcycle for Joni. I was impressed with the movie for no other reason than it stayed out of the syrup with all of the romantic relationships. People get bored with each other sexually, but they stay together because love and history are there. That’s truth — I don’t see what’s wrong with saying out loud once in awhile.
Oof. Interesting discussion.
I haven’t seen the movie (yet) — I probably will, just so I can add in my two cents — but from what I’m getting here, it seems like just another ordinary piece of mainstream-pleasing Hollywood trash … which, well, fine if that’s what it’s meant to be, but then don’t promote it as something that’ll make my queermo self happy, because I’m sure betting it won’t.
I learned a long time ago that just ’cause folks are gay and/or lesbian IDed doesn’t mean they’re automatically going to condemn patriarchal gender norms as well as a whole lot of classism/racism/sexism/transphobia/biphobia/etc, etc. Which sucks, but is life, I guess.
In the context of the history of mainstream films, TKAA is a breakthrough for one simple reason. The Mark Ruffalo character assumes that he can move in and replace the “butch” (I agree with Jack that Nic is just sort of butch, and I also agree that these days the mainstream stereotypical representations of lesbians show lots of hair and make up as well as unrelenting affluence and mostly whiteness) in the sexual and family constellation. When Jewel rejects him and Nic pushes him out, asserting, “This is MY family,” that is a really big deal. And they don’t die, no trees fall on them or lightning strikes.
Watching this movie whatever its shortcomings, I felt throughout that it was made from a lesbian’s perspective, and that meant a great deal to me, even though I don’t have kids and don’t want any. I guess the straight people liked it, but they laughed in some of the wrong places 😦
As to alternatives to LTR, “different arrangements” and so on, gay men have institutions that support this (fuck parties, back rooms, cruising, tricking, three ways, open relationships, etc.) The vast majority of lesbians do not.
I agree Esther that there are pieces of this film that feel like breakthroughs and that it certainly has the mark of lesbian authorship and is not straining to represent the lesbian family but assumesits ordinariness. And, yes there are plenty of models in gay life for alternative ways of doing LTR. What is sad about the film is how unwilling Cholodenko was to grapple with the implications of a “warts and all” depiction of lesbian family life. If lesbian family life is as fucked up as hetero family life, then why no critique of nuclearity? Why the reinvestment in the very arrangement that seems to have produced claustrophobia, inertia and sexual boredom? Anyway, nice of you to weigh in! Hope to see you somewhere soon! Jack
there may be “models” of alternatives for lesbian LTR — lesbians who are living out alternatives on a private basis, but there is no institutional support, that was my point. Monogamy has huge drawbacks, obviously, (quite apart from the marriage question) but for most lesbians, as for straight women, it’s be monogamous (and maybe “cheat”) or be single.
Hope all is well with you and hope to see you sometime,
Excellent review. How I felt exactly. I was particularly put off by the affair. Here’s what I wrote on this subject in my own review to friends:
Sorry, no, we aren’t lesbian because we couldn’t find a guy. We don’t all sit around just waiting for the right guy to come along to show us what we’re missing! And hell, this isn’t even a case of “the right guy” but rather “the right lust.” They don’t give us any reason to understand why she might suddenly be attracted to him. They don’t establish the story that she was feeling unloved; and they don’t develop the relationship between her and the guy to make us feel like she’s actually getting something from this fling. So, is it a case of her missing affection and she doesn’t care in what form that comes? Was she actually attracted to him? (really?) And then, was she conflicted over this? We don’t actually see this. I don’t care if you’re hetero or gay, you suddenly are attracted to someone completely opposite, wouldn’t you start wondering just who you are? The thing is, they could have had her have this very affair with another woman, and the story, as portrayed, wouldn’t be any different. But they had her get all horny with a man, and that was just downright insulting. They fell back on stereotypes and what they thought the audience would buy.
This movie had potential, but Cholodenko really dropped the ball.
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Thanks for a great critique of this rather depressingly aggravating movie. My partner and I just saw it today, and she astutely noted that this film is yet another “Hollywood does lesbians”. Or perhaps we’re supposed to be in awe because 2 of the best actresses in the world can “play” lesbian. I’ve seen a number of glowing A+ reviews in newspapers and magazines. I have to wonder who paid the reviewers. This film, at best is a C+ film for all the reasons noted above by many of you: the whining white woman angst (okay, that’s realistic–seriously) while they live lives of privilege, the would-be sex scene while Butch Annette watches gay porn as Femme Julianne goes down on her (please!); the subtle racist undertones. While I love Ruffalo and can understand how Moore’s character might have latched onto him, why can’t we show the trials and tribulation of lesbian marriage without a man coming into the picture? That really does happen sometime in the real world.
Can’t anyone get a film to the mainstream that depicts lesbian family dynamics, lesbians who don’t live in million dollar homes,etc.
Thanks, you all for making feel like I’m not crazy.
I just read many of the comments posted about the film ‘The Kids Are Alright’ and found a lot of it very interesting. But I noticed something missing. Did anyone see that the heterosexual sex scenes in this movie were all skin and out there, naked, sweating bodies, including the sex scenes with Jules, one of the lesbian moms and the sperm-donation guy (not the father) and all we get of lesbian sex is two women in bed, under the covers. We don’t even get a naked shoulder or a naked back or even a half naked breast. We get nothing. I don’t care how much you want to portray long-term relationships as sexually dead, portray away I say, doesn’t bother me but you cannot possibly in 2010 give us a scene of a duvet cover and call it lesbian sex or even lesbians trying to have sex or lesbians failing at having sex. I feel like I stepped into a time warp, back 20 years when it was o.k. to be gay ‘just don’t tell us you are gay’ or ‘I don’t mind those gay people as long as I don’t see them you know….f**king’. What a bunch of heterosexist mainstream bullshit. We can show lesbians kissing each other but we can’t show their sweaty, slick, slippery attempts at sex. In fact the only gay sexual scene with naked bodies was a quick glimpse of gay male porn. Wow, you can show audiences gay male porn and still the lesbians have to be under the covers. Please have the courage to show us two middle aged lesbians, in a long-term relationship, failing at having sex or struggling to regain their desire for each other and still failing but show them, as naked as the people who were having hetero-sex. Homophobia is alive and well in mainstream film-making but I didn’t expect this from a lesbian film-maker no matter how much she needed to make her film. I was disappointed beyond belief with this film. I really could have liked this film except that it failed when it sold out.
I did comment on the furtive lesbian sex versus the out in the open raunchy hetero sex but thanks for expanding on this theme…JH
[…] Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbian drama The Kids Are All Right, a movie that Jack Halberstam, in a convincing left-queer analysis, describes as “a scathing critique of gay marriage,” of the rhetoric of equality, that […]
You quote the “The Who” song and describe it as an anthem against domesticity, however he says he is leaving “her” behind with the kids. Isn’t she now stuck in domesticity. But, regardless, if you see the song as an anthem to “women are stuck with the kids while others go off an have fun”, the song and movie seem to go together perfectly.
If you saw the film “The Kids Are All Right” starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, you know that families shepherded by mothers who are lesbians can look pretty normal. The teens in the comedy are as well-adjusted and angst ridden as any “normal” teen, until they invite a heterosexual male into the mix — their sperm donor. And from there the laughter ensues.
Some study and others show that far from abnormal, these children may even have a big advantage. Sociologists at the University of California reviewed data from 21 studies on Gay parenting, and found their kids may even be ahead of the game. Since lesbian and gay parents may show more understanding for social diversity and are less likely to behave in narrow traditional gender roles, the children tend to be more nurturing, less aggressive, more open to diversity themselves.
This got me thinking about what’s really normal for kids. After all, in terms of our anthropological roots, we’ve been an industrialized culture with religious mores for only a short period of time. In some ways we are trapped in the biology of our hunter/gather ancestors and that might be more “normal” for us. So what did families look like back then?
I was appalled by this movie as much as Juno. Once you peel away the seeming liberal glitter, you find traditional stereotypical views of conservationism. For Juno, it was an anti-abortion. In The Kids are Alright, the message was just as bad. The message is that what lesbians need is the right “man” with big external genitalia to make them crave good sex. It plays into the conservative opinion that homosexuality is a CHOICE. As for the children, the message was that they need a “man” or the opposite sex partner for parenting. It try to play into our emotions that children will try to seek the “normal” parenting models to justify their existence.
I am appalled by stories told about gays with such subliminal conservative suggestion. We don’t need it….we got it. Scew you.
[…] certains aspects que je n’ai pas abordé mais qui méritent d’être soulignés ici et ici; la citation qui suit étant tirée de la seconde. I am not saying that the lesbian relationship […]
Jack, I agree with Sarah, that this film is spot-on. I was reluctant to see the film after seeing the trailers, but thought I would give it a go. About half way through, my husband walked out, prompting an argument we have quite often about how I feel it is unfair to judge a film until you’ve given it the respect of seeing it through to the denouement.
I agree with all the points Jack makes about how casting, plot, characterisation etc, combine to reinscribe an incredibly conservative, heterosexist take on queer families. I was initially quite heartened to see the daddy-come-lately (great phrase, by the way) literally and symbolically evacuated from the domestic and narrative space, but upon reflection, the costs of this are far too high. Nic (is it over-reading to point out that her name rhymes quite nicely with “Dick”?) is clearly operating as a phallic alternative to the Dad figure, thus quite neatly rehearsing the really offensive idea that in gay relationships, especially parental ones, someone needs to stand in for the absent father. This is where I think Sarah is coming from when she says that the grounding assumption here is that, despite what Nic says about families being made (she tells Nic to “if you want a family, go and make one yourself), this film is clearly invested in an ideal, heteronormative family structure, against which this family are being compared, rather than investigating the subtleties and celebrating the differences of the/a queer family. There is a vast difference between a politics of difference and a politics of similarization to coin a phrase, and I think the latter is on offer here; the questions posed – and rather too neatly answered by this film are precisely the questions (for which read problems) that the white, straight, middle class levels at queers.
I also found the reference to Joni Mitchell, who really is the only thing that Nic and the father figure have in common, really problematic. It symbolically lumpss all of the vaguely counter-cultural elements in the film – hippyism, lesbian feminism, notions about female artistry, together, almost literally suggesting that women who love Joni Mitchell must surely be Lesbians. Men, however, who follow their dreams, set up restaurants selling local produce, give sperm away to desperate lesbians to “help people”, chat sensitvely with their girlfriends, like Joni Mitchell because they are reconstructed straight men and ‘get it’. So lesbians are part of an idealistic, vaguely ecologically-minded alternative left that sounds great, but doesn’t work in practice …much like Julianne Moore’s garden. I think this is nowhere more clearly highlighted than when she offers to “change” any aspect of the garden to suit (Mark Ruffalo)’s taste. She’s also clearly talking about her own sexuality here, implying that Lesbianism is an OK kind of alternative, but clearly a choice, a departure that’s understandable in the lack of a great guy with a huge dick, but hardly a permanent one. Ordinarily the idea that sexuality is changeable and not stagnant would be great and really radically, but I think this possibility is closed off here by the sheer readiness and almost inevitability with which Moore and Ruffalo jump into bed.
This said, I agree as well that Annette Benning was amazing, and Julianne Moore did the best she could with the ridiculous constraints placed on her. The film, however, deserves to be excoriated in precisely the ways other people above have done.
Having just seen this film on DVD, I’m coming late to the conversation. I didn’t much care for the movie, but not for any of the reasons anyone shared. I am appalled at the treatment of Paul. He didn’t ask to be found by his children; he didn’t ask to become part of the family; and he didn’t kiss Jules first. He was blamed for everything that was going wrong in the family, and dumped like a hot potato with no consideration for his feelings. I didn’t see his character as being as shallow as others saw it. I saw a man who had a glimpse of family life, liked what he saw, and acted on those feelings. After all, he didn’t desert a family he knew he had. After learning he had children, is he now just to forget that he ever met them? I’m on his side.
i totally agree with anna. felt sad for the guy and walked away from the movie with a sense that he had been unfairly treated.
that said, i also felt that this story had tremendous potential but was scripted towards a dull ending. and that’s something most movies miss today: a really great narrative.
thanks for all the intelligent comments about this film. I felt bad the way Paul was treated and agree with Anna Powell above.
We forget the purpose of movies is to make money. The target was mainstream america and because the topic is taboo is some parts of america i think the film maker recognize their target audience will be no-tweens and open minded audience. Hence the gratuitious sex.
I was rooting for Jules until she fired the gardner and made me realise..if instead of two lesbians..she could have been the wife of a wealthy white man and was pampered and given everything. Also if she she an ounce of empathy or had to work for a living ..she would not have been so dismissive.
I think Jules was being selfish and self pereservative..theres NO WAY she could have survived on her own. thats why she “came back”.
I lost all sympathy for the family when they freezed Paul out of their lives when he did’nt ask for any of it.
To me i just got:
two wealthy affluent white women living the high life they wanted and did’nt give a shit about anybody else. And the film ..just sold because it was about lesbians.
I found an entirely different message. Lesbianism is still new to mainstream T.V. and films, despite the sudden trend towards it, and I believe that maybe Lesbians are neither Butch nor especially feminine. They are people, and the bleakness of the relationship, I thought, actually added an air of reality to it.
I thought the message might be that Mark’s character thought it was okay to seduce Jules, because he did not really take the lesbian relationship seriously. The winner is Nicki, who happens to have many dimensions and is actually a loving, strong character, and she holds her family together against this outsider. It could be a hetereosexual relationship. But it used a lesbian relationship to give that side something we can all identify with.
I am an intelligent woman. I did not need such sexually explicit scenes. A few hints would have sufficed. I also don’t require movie stars to have sex in order to entertain me (excuse me, I don’t see how some of those scenes could have been similated, almost had to be done for real).
So I was against that. Also, young kids could receive a real message, but they can’t watch the movie with all those sex scenes.
I think the sexual orientation wasn’t as relevant as the message: that families are important, and things need to be worked out within the family. And that the family actually could survive if they were.
Except for the sex, lovely movie.
I have to answer some of these other comments. I thought Jules was attracted to the male character, because she was miserable, and he made her feel she was worthy. Even though they had sex, the affair wasn’t really about sex, it was about self-esteem.
What was missing in her and Nicki’s relationship was actually Jule’s lack of self-esteem.
So some of the ways the film tried to illustrate things may have actually hidden that. Jules going wild over his penis, well, that sent a mixed message. Watching male porn because “Women’s sexuality is internalized”, well, that is also confusing.
But the message of the movie was, that this donor was able to move in, because these women were not happy and they were not communicating about it, and this could happen in any family.
As far as sex in any movie, as far as I am concerned, like Mel Brooks said, “Keep sex dirty and in the bedroom”.
In other words if you want porn, any kind of porn, go watch it. Keep it out of mainstream movies.
[…] of the The Kids Are All Right took Lisa Cholodenko to task for making yet another movie about white middle class suburbia, in which the lesbian center only […]
I am yet to see this film but a friend of mine told me all about it, she was very disappointed that it was not how my partner and I are. We have a 13 month old little girl conceived by sperm donor. We have been married for 5 years. My partners parents are not completely ok about it all but deal with it as best they can. They find it too hard to ask us questions but took it upon themselves to watch this film which I see as a positive step as they are trying to learn, but I can’t help but think that this may have given them the wrong impression of what we do/like. 5 years of hard work undone?
[…] historians would notice.” Tie a thread to this post and run it through the blogosphere to Bully Bloggers where, after several days of silence, the comments section of Jack Halberstam’s post on Lisa […]
[…] review by a queer scholar, that will actually get into it why this is a lesbian movie, go here for Jack Halberstam’s “The Kids Aren’t Alright” (bullybloggers July 15, […]
I found a lot of the comments interesting. My wife of 35 plus years and I watched the movie for the first time last night. I’m going to bring up three observations, one about Lazer, one about the Mexican gardener, and one about Jule’s sexuality. At the beginning of the movie we see Lazer and his friend zipping down the streets, knocking over a couple of trash cans. From what the movie offers to show us, Lazer is living with three females and seeks the friendship of a reckless delinquent boy who seems to show Lazer some excitement in life, even though it is the wrong kind of fun such as snorting up the crushed pill, looking in Lazer’s parent’s dresser (the porn flick, the sex toy, etc.) and wrestling on the floor. Lazer soon gets tired of his friend after seeing how his friend wants to urinate on the lost dog. Lazer finds male bonding in Paul as seen at the basketball court which oddly is a better relationship despite the fact that Paul is a womanizer. At the end of the movie, even though Paul is an interloper, he did make some kind of impact on Lazer. So, I’m wondering what the filmmaker was saying here.
Regarding the “Mexican”, from what I gathered of the character, the gardener did not seem to have yet mastered the English language and had to think about what he heard in English, translate into Spanish, then back into English to make a response. I am an school teacher and have an endorsement in English as a Second Language. His sometimes somewhat puzzled look on his face and cheeriness were just personality traits. He was caught up in the embarrassing mess of his boss sleeping with the owner, seeing her sexy underwear, getting caught looking at her rear end, and having to look at his boss with a straight face, then having to deal with Jule’s insane accusation of having that look or stare. I can only imagine he was thinking “La mujer esta muy loca!”
In regards to Jules, correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t there such a thing as bisexuality? Someone I know broke up with her female lover after having a baby and is now married to a male. Anne Heche also comes to mind. Jules’ sexual encounter with Paul seemed realistic to me.
My wife and I enjoyed this comedy/drama.
Please excuse any grammatical errors. I wrote this response off the top of my head. Consider it my “First draft.” LOL!!!
Jack, thank you so much for this review! I just watched the film, a gift from a well- intentioned family member, and it made me feel terrible! I thought, someone must recognize the heterosexist viewpoint this represents. Your writing has always been an inspiration to me, so when I saw your name, I said: of course! Thanks for your insight, and your continued work in the dismantling a world obsessed with binaries, and offering new possibilities.
[…] approaches to the lesbian parenting movie The Kids Are All Right (2010) that you began to develop in a much-commented upon post in Bully Bloggers. Before we get to that — has blogging moved you towards writing for a wider audience? Do you […]
[…] the link to the Halberstam article we read in class today. Enjoy! And I’ll see you all tomorrow! (Someone bring […]
Oh my, I thought I was the only one! I remember reading the reviews, seeing this movie, and feeling absolutely out of touch. I found the movie suffocating and profoundly reactionary in spirit. Here is a piece of a review from The Flick Philosopher, a reviewer I disagreed with so often I simply stopped reading her. First is a quote from the review, and next, my comments (from July 2010):
“[The family in “The Kids Are Alright”] It’s all normal, that is. Like really, really normal and down to earth. And funny and smart and poignant and real and universal. It’s one of the best movies about family I’ve ever seen” (from The Flick Philosopher — Review of The Kids Are Alright) [M. Murphy comment: Whaaa?]
I really loved “Laurel Canyon,” and “High Art” and was looking forward to this, but it left me with a feeling of suffocation. A few points:
a.) Here is something to think about. If the couple were a straight male doctor (controlling, someone who had wanted a “wife,” and was given to needling his wife, with lines such as “I wanted you to feel better about yourself, dear…!”) would our popular opinion of 2010 find it such a happy ending? When I compare this to “I Am Love” and the whole “Lady Chatterley” trope, I can just imagine an alternate movie, and the theme that Nic’s affair with the “fecund” other man was an act of “liberation” from the control of her husband. Just a skunk to drop into the garden party.
b.) I thought Anthony Lane’s review (The New Yorker) put his finger on a subtle something not otherwise picked up on in the overwhelmingly positive critical glow for this film. What is it with these women’s pretentious dialog? As he noted, the script is spot on what was lampooned so long ago by Woody Allen.
c.) The repugnant treatment of the Mexican gardener. I found it jarring to watch a movie in which a middle-aged working man is casually fired with a day’s notice, and slandered as a drug user. In addition, his allergies are treated as a joke…. don’t these pretentious bitches realize that there are folks working in pollen, and substances worse (asbestos, etc.) so they won’t starve?
d.) Finally, at the end, with the “interloper”/sperm donor is sent packing and the nuclear family snaps back into place, the adulterous “wife” hopes for forgiveness and presumably sleeps on the couch a while longer, and all is right with the world. Reactionary and troubling. And so, so, so, far from the wild subversive energy that coursed through “Laurel Canyon” and “High Art.” Sigh.
I am going to put this away and come back in 2025 (God willing) and see how this film “ages” in critical opinion.