Pop Culture

ONLY The Kids Are All Right

By Lisa Duggan
(with Kathryn Bond Stockton)

I saw The Kids Are All Right here in Salt Lake City, Utah with my pal Kathryn Bond Stockton. We expected it to be bad, given Jack Halberstam’s review here and other reports. But we had no idea how bad. As Stockton quickly quipped, “Congratulations to Lisa Cholodenko for this entry in the lesbian horror genre!”

My revulsion was visceral and immediate. I already knew the plot was going to annoy me–that cliched Threat to the Marriage, Overcome story. The old disruption by outside sexual desire, and restoration of the marital bond thing, this time featuring a couple of privileged white lesbians. I knew the racial representations were going to be offensive. Yet I was inclined to accept the view that Hollywood movie making required this kind of plot, and that the director would have had to negotiate the plot points to get the film made and mass distributed. I came with low expectations, expecting to be basically curious but indifferent. I thought the director would work counter to the lame plot in ways I was hoping to observe. But I was shocked, shocked at the terrible direction of this film. Not just the script, but Lisa Cholodenko’s direction was, I can only say, absolutely vile.

OK, so vile how? Annette Benning’s Nic was a cartoon andro dyke (they clearly didn’t try for butch). Not just her scripted role as a priggish, controlling, condescending asshole, but……her gestures, her facial expressions and the way she held her mouth, her stance, her movements. These, one may argue, are questions of acting–perhaps Annette Benning just tried too hard and turned herself into a caricature? But she had a lesbian director (!) who finally guided her gestures and expressions and movements and decided which versions and edits would make it into the film. But if Benning’s Nic was bad, Julianne Moore’s Jules was horrifying, offensive and repulsive (I could add more adjectives, but maybe that’s enough?). As the somewhat more femme partner, she nonetheless manufactured the same cartoon mouth thing that was supposed to look “dykey,” similar gestures and movements and….they made her look really bad in order to make her lesbian. (My pal Stockton began to fear coming home to her lovely girlfriend Shelley White in overalls and a bad sun hat.) Has Cholodenko never seen Wanda Sykes move or Portia de Rossi smile? Every dyke in the audience, wherever located on a butch-andro-femme scale, should consider throwing drinks at the screen.

These screen lesbos made me long for the ridiculously over glamorized L-Word!! And they truly made me appreciate Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly in Bound–straight actresses as utterly persuasive dykes, with the styling and directing assistance of Susie Bright. Hollywood–next time you want to make a lesbo film, call Susie Bright!!

But if the two lesbians were a kind of dyke-face minstrel show, they were far more nuanced than the representation of the Chicano gardner. The director went beyond the offensive script, and guided the actor to play that character broadly for laughs, exactly minstrel style. The big eyes, the broad grin, the stance, the whole gestural thing….absolutely crudely racist. And note that the only two characters of color were both employees of the white folks who dumped them one way or another–Paul dumps his gorgeous black employee/mistress, as Jules fires the gardner. Another round of drinks at the screen, please!

Here I would like to interrupt this regular blog post to share the insights of KB Stockton, who noted that:

1) The only good thing about the movie–though it’s big–is the utter liberation of Julianne Moore’s oft-closeted freckles.

2) The film demonstrates that heroin addiction and the inescapable attraction to an addict (as depicted in Cholodenko’s earlier “High Art”) is fun, sexy, and interesting compared to the relations in “The Kids Are All Right”; this is obviously Cholodenko’s message, and the two films clearly
work as a diptych.

3) The movie shows the problem for women with men: as indicated by meathead Clay (Laser’s friend), inevitably men want to pee on your head.

Finally, I would like to invite all readers to send your entries for Worst Lesbian Sex Scene in Cinema History, because I nominate the one in this movie. If I thought that was what I had to look forward to, I’d exit lesbiana and start sucking dick tomorrow. Please enlighten me if there are worse dyke “sexual” scenarios in film history.

39 replies on “ONLY The Kids Are All Right”

Wow. Minstrel-style was exactly the phrase that I was looking for! Thanks Lisa. As for Kathryn Bond Stockton, I LOVE you for saying (1) and for your insights in (2) and (3). Yes, the fatalistic attraction to addicts is clearly the compare/contrast idea when Lisa Cholodenko took on this film. And men ultimately just want to PEE. On other people’s head.

Okay, finally saw it! And I have a mixed response. Lisa, I don’t think it makes sense to complain that that sex scene portrayed bad lesbian sex, when its entire goal was to portray bad lesbian sex. It’s true that the actresses had a striking lack of chemistry till about the last third of the film. But I found that scene pretty funny and real as a scene about marriage 20-odd years in: the gay male porn, Nic wearing the big glasses to see it better. In fact, one thing I liked about the movie was the way it incorporated dick without getting hung up about whether dykes who are into it are still dykes — I found that pleasantly queer.

It’s true that the straight sex is portrayed as hotter. But I found a lot of facetiousness in the portrayal of Paul’s sexuality. The first time we see him, it’s as if we’re watching porn: he’s got the cheesy smile, he’s harvesting the sexy vegetables, etc. I thought of it as a movie about the fantasies people hold of The Father — kids and moms alike. And then the fantasies that he starts to hold of The Family. All of that felt real to me, stuff that’s worth saying and exploring. I hated the way he gets totally ostracized at the end so they can reconstitute themselves as a family: that, to me, was the worst aspect of the film.

Finally, I liked how in the end, the movie wasn’t interested in the biological relation. There’s just that one mention by Jules about seeing her kids’ facial expressions in Paul. There’s no discussion of anybody’s traits. We don’t even know which kid comes from which mom, although we can surmise. I thought that for a film about the bio-dad, that was cool.

Your points are really almost entirely about the script, mine were mostly about the directing/acting. And then, about my responses to it–visceral disgust, hatred, repulsion, that kind of thing. The sex scene could have been played as bad sex, yet amusing and not repulsive. It seems you found it amusing; I found it utterly repulsive. That’s not really a script/plot analysis–the plotting I just thought was mainly cliched and lame, well, and racist.

This movie was ultimately disgusting. I hated it for all the reasons that have already been listed. This is in no way a true protrayal of lesbians and I was outraged watching this piece of crap movie.

hooray, lisa (and Kathryn)!!! thank you deeply for this.

the only folks who need to feel ashamed by this film are the ones who made it and the ones who liked it.

fuck this film. let’s forget about it like we did High Art – oops, did i say that out loud?

Really? It’s not a film I’d go to the mat for, but people should feel ashamed for liking it?
I don’t think my comments are all about the script, Lisa, or that yours aren’t about the script at all. (The direction and shooting of Mark Ruffalo as super-cheesy fecund male, the fantasy father, for example — that’s a direction thing.) But I hear that you feel what you feel!

Worst lesbian sex scene? So many to choose from. Perhaps Ellen D. and Sharon Stone in If These Walls Could Talk. Favorite dyke/queer/kinky/trans sex scene, which has yet to hit the queer critical radar: when Cameron Diaz, in the body of John Malkovich, fucks Catherine Keener in Being John Malkovich.

Love love love your whole article. Thanks for articulating what I’ve been trying to explain to my straight friends. It was so disheartening and frustrating to experience. There has to be a middle ground between The L Word and the The D(ead) World! It almost makes me miss Jenny Schecter : )

I saw it last night. Some observations, while the acid reflux is still fresh:
1. I agree with the idea that High Art and The Kids Are Alright work together- and I’m hoping, but not very hard, that Cholodenko is trying, in her own way, to create some dialectical new possibility in her third movie. Maybe?
2. I wanted to head butt most audience members who repeatedly chuckled at the plural “moms” and “momses.” And then I got really pissed not only that people think it’s just so cute/precious/hilarious that there could be a plural form of mom, but that Cholodenko surely knew everything that would get a laugh, and most of it is just horrific. For example- the audience clapping and laughing when Julianne Moore & Mark Ruffalo start fucking. And laughing when she just can’t help herself but get fucked again and again. Seriously? Jules is creating a “fecund” garden with Paul, so naturally, being in nature, they just have to consummate their biological urges. It is so wretched that the director chose to play this already sad emplotment for laughs. The metaphorical flatness here isn’t just badly done, it’s tragic.

I agree with JF – I wouldn’t go to the mat for this film, but I fear that reviews like yours and Halberstam’s are turning my fellow privileged white liberals away from seeing this film altogether. Of course, it’s a free country, and people can voice whatever opinion they want, etc. etc. etc., but I’m beginning to feel the way I did when I saw people voting for Ralph Nader in the 2000 election: perhaps, before punching that ballot, you should take a step back and take a look at the practical outcome of your decision. Simply put, I am delighted that a film starring a lesbian household is at my local Midwestern multiplex, and the only way we’re going to get a greater variety of queer storylines in film — coming out of Hollywood or Sundance or wherever — is to support the slim pickings we’re currently served.

I certainly had some issues with the story, but in the end I disagree fundamentally with the assertion that the film is actively racist and anti-lesbian-passion or whatever. Whenever Luis (the gardener) made an appearance, I immediately identified with *him* and sympathized with his experience, often at the expense of any sympathy I might otherwise have had with Jules; if I felt like laughing, it would have been laughing “with” Luis, joining in his incredulity at the ridiculousness of what Jules was doing. it seemed crystal clear to me that all of the interactions involving Luis were there to remind us that the family is a typical middle-class white Southern California household that can pretend it’s participating in a “diverse” environment even as it’s really in a bubble of privilege. (Just as it’s pretending to be well-adjusted even as it’s falling apart, etc.) And all this gesturing seemed to me to be quite intentional on the director’s/screenwriter’s parts. Apparently they should have found some other way to get the same cultural points across, without stepping on so many toes – but consider the Catch-22: what if this little indie film, which has fewer than 10 characters with more than a couple of minutes’ screentime, featured no characters of color at all? Surely it would have been equally excoriated in the blogosphere.

I could go on, but I’ll leave it here for now. I thought this was an amusing slice-of-life film, and if the lead characters hadn’t been in a longterm same-sex partnership, I likely wouldn’t have seen it in the theater — but even so, I did not expect it to be anything more than it was. I can only assume that bloggers who are ripping it to shreds expected it to be something entirely different, some sort of Holy Grail for Queer Diversity, and it most certainly is not that. But then so very, very, very, very few films are.

PS: I should clarify that I’m not advocating going to see just any flick that has some sort of queer depiction in it; back in the day, I refused to see “Basic Instinct,” for example. But “The Kids” is no “Basic Instinct”: it may *depict* people laboring under racial stereotypes, but it does so critically, without actively *reinforcing* them, imho.

Just to be clear that I’m not a “positive images” advocate who objects to the representations of Jules and Nic because they are “negative”–I *loved* Basic Instinct! And @JF: my comment said “almost entirely” and “mostly,” not “at all” as your response says. So the point about the representation of the gardener is not primarily [not use of word “primarily” rather than “exclusively”] about how he is scripted, but more about how he is acted/directed. A shift in acting/direction might have moved the film toward a critique of Jules’ casual racism, but instead I think the racialized representation participated in that racism by minstrelizing that role. IMHO. It is perfectly reasonable to come to a different conclusion/interpretation.

Ah, I see, you’re advocating a different variation of “positive-image” differentiation: SEXY queer characters/caricatures are GOOD (“Basic Instinct,” “L Word,” “Bound,” Wanda, Portia), while overalls-wearing, not-adequately-femmey-or-butchy characters/caricatures are BAD. I get the feeling that comedic representations are almost always BAD in this scheme, because it’s hard for characters to stay elegantly seductive when they’re getting laughs. “The Kids” also is highly stylized, I would argue, though it does a number of things explicitly in order to garner laughs (or at least chuckles of sympathetic amusement from other long-time couples). Please keep in mind that this is the age of Ricky Gervais, when comedy keeps us wincing while we chuckle.

Again, I think that (e.g.) the “minstrelsy” of Luis is quite complex, since he *decides to act* innocently wide-eyed when he realizes that the unstable Jules might fire him if she suspects that he suspects; in other words, he *decides to act* the part that she would expect of him. If we condemn any film that contains this kind of interaction, a sort of dry humor obviously sympathetic to the person of color in question, then I fear that we will end up with ONLY queer films like “Bound,” with its stylized self-important sexiness and utter whiteness.

A challenge: Can you come up with a more positive, and possibly even humorous, depiction involving characters of different races in recent queer film? (I de-nominate “The L Word” right off the bat, because the characters of color are magically drained of it for the most part.) Going WAAAY back, “The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love” gestured at race, but so tentatively that I couldn’t really hold it up as an example either.

FWIW, I still enjoy “Bound” as a sort of queer cult film, though my partner and I were the only ones who laughed out loud at the sex scenes when we saw it with a theater full of extremely serious New Yorkers when it was released. Compare the amazing (if sadly brief) encounters between the straight actors Elaine Cassidy and Sally Hawkins in the BBC adaptation of Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith.”

Finally, re: the whole ethos of Bully Bloggers, I would just invoke that most prescient of films, “Ratatouille”:
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk” — or, in this case, the average slice-of-life indie film — “is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. “

@LS: I thought Basic Instinct was comedic, and didn’t find TKAAR to be successfully comic at all. *Loved* Ratatouille! There is in fact quite a corpus of queer of color films and filmmakers–much to be said about them, maybe a topic for another post? And, I really don’t think BullyBloggers has an ethos? All kinds of topics and posts, including guest posts, in different tones and genres, from earnest to silly. There is, rather than an ethos, a broadly shared political framework on the queer left. IMHO.

And BTW, my post on TKAAR–was kind of throwaway and reactive, trying to turn my/our disgust into fun. It wasn’t meant to be a carefully considered analysis, at all. It was more like vomiting on the page, right after seeing the movie.

“But she had a lesbian director (!) who finally guided her gestures and expressions and movements…”

Really? Directors guide actors in their gestures and expressions? I think not. At least not good ones, which by all accounts from her peers Cholodenko is. And admonishments that she study Wanda Sykes’ movements or Portia’s smile seem equally silly. You may indeed have good reasons for not liking this film, but your credibility is substantially undermined by your dismissive conclusion that Cholodenko’s direction is ‘vile,’ when you are rather ill-informed about what a director actually does.

Bad sex IS a revolting and visceral experience–that Cholodenko managed to capture that ick-factor, rather than make it ‘amusing’ seems testament that she is quite a competent director.

@Susan. Well, I know some directors personally who would disagree with your view above. I realize there are different approaches, and the assessment of which ones are “good” is also fully debatable. But, I’m not really concerned about credibility. I’m a historian and political journalist, I don’t write about film as an “expert.” I have seen Cholodenko’s other films–High Art and Laurel Canyon are, IMHO, *much* better than TKAAR in every way. I don’t question Cholodenko’s overall competence, but I really hate the decisions she made in TKAAR.

I wasn’t asking about the whole corpus of queer-of-color films, but specifically about realistic (if perhaps played-for-comedy) interactions between people of very different backgrounds in films by/about queer folks. From what I recall of “The Watermelon Woman,” for example, it’s pretty focused on the Af-Am community and one woman’s experience. “Precious” does take on race in a headier way, though not necessarily within the queer subplots, and I think we can all agree that it isn’t remotely funny. So – I’d appreciate your pointing out specific, well-done representations of interracial interactions in queer film!

“Basic Instinct” had that thriller-noir sick sort of humor, but I can tell you that the audience I saw it with in Salina, KS (where was comped in so I didn’t have to pay for it) laughed only when the dykes (Beth, Roxy) got their comeuppances, and when the police made wisecracks. Def. not in the same comedic league as “The Kids.”

And finally, since, as you say, your post on “Kids” was meant to be that fun, throwaway sort of criticism that is so beautifully belittled in “Ratatouille,” I wonder whether you might comment on the practical effects of reviews such as this on the box office, which was my central point to begin with? (The real question, I suppose, is why anyone posts such negative reactionary reviews if not to steer people away from the film in question. Was this your intent? If not, how do you feel about the fact that the Bully Bloggers reviews *are* in fact turning potential viewers away from it?)

Re: “Moms.” I liked that. I didn’t see the humor as being about there being two moms (which would be “THE moms”), I saw it as a clever teenaged way of negotiating “Mom and Mom.”
@LD: I didn’t write about the gardener.

@bully: Do those directors also give line-readings? 😉

Yeah, call me old-fashioned, but I’m uncomfortable with vomit-on-the-page-style reviews, though I know they’re de rigueur on the high seas of the interwebs. As a creative person myself, I think ‘credibility’ is still an essential form of respect that we owe when we publicly critique an artistic endeavor.

@JF–I didn’t think you *did* say anything about the gardener?? I was responding to another commenter.
@Susan–Blog posts aren’t exactly the same thing as “reviews” in the print publication sense. But I do think we should be accurate (and I don’t think my point about the direction was inaccurate–we just hold different views about that), in either kind of writing.

@Judy: Maybe you weren’t responding to me directly- I can’t tell. I’m not questioning the terms “moms” and “momses.” I’m noting that it was very unsettling to have many, many people in the audience tittering about the term. The cutesy factor here is what bothers me- why is this able to be read as amusing at all? This isn’t Cholodenko’s problem, to be sure- but it framed the rest of my viewing experience in a way that made me hypersensitive to all of the other scenes where I felt very uncomfortable (Jules & Paul abandoning themselves to fecundity and Nature’s Urges) and the rest of the audience was just delighted.

Lisa — you are SOOOOO right about this stupid, ugly movie — I only I wish I had read your review before wasting my time and money viewing it (also in Salt Lake City, as it turns out…) Talk about “eating” (or not…) our own — did we really need a “lesbian director” to create such a piece of caca? Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves…it made me determined to see “Set It Off” yet again — talk about a great lesbo sex scene.

I totally agree with all you said!
I got very disappointed with this movie.
And what about the male porn and the wild sex with a MAN? Terrible! And more terrible the sex scene.

I forgot to say that I like a lot High Art, despite all. Maybe because I’m crazy for photography. But anyway, good or not it’s much much better than The Kids Are All Right.

Sorry to say, but all these comments against your review are so tiresome and mostly pointless.

I have to agree. I went to the movie prepared to like it – wanted to like it – and normally love Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. I was embarrassed – one of the worst screenplays, a story that couldn’t decide whether it was about kids looking for their donor, a marriage in trouble, or how to show lesbian sex at its worst. The dialogue was cringe-worthy embarrassing, and kudos to Bening and Moore for even showing up to work every day! How could the director of High Art have fallen so low?

I just saw the film in Berlin, Germany and I found it very right wing. I agree that it was racist not just because the characters were racist toward the minor non-white characters but because the non-white characters were so unrealistically docile in the face of the dispicable treatment they received.
Pauls girlfriend weeps pathetically when white boy tells her he is looking for someone he can start a serious relationship with (subtext being “you are obviously out of the question because you are sexy and beautiful and black”). the irony is that she is the only real friend he has in the film but also lets be realistic what Sister would let that go without at least cursing his sorry ass out.
But the film also has a major problem with men and fathers and I really don’t understand this. The son who starts the film by pleading with his sister to “make the call” because he seems to need a same gender role model is left with nothing but shame as he watches his biological father skulk away into the shadows.
Everything must be sacrificed at the altar of the nuclear family. Reactionary!
The happy end is supposed to make us feel that Laser (nice name Moms!)doesn’t need a same gender role model after all. I don’t buy it.
Yes the film is racist, sexist and boringly decadent too.

When slamming the film for its racial tendencies, you categorize the gardener as “Chicano.” As an historian and political journalist, it surprises me that you’d make such an assumption regarding the character’s ethnic / racial identification, as “Chicano” typically means US born from parents born in Mexico. Maybe you used “Chicano” (instead of Latino) to sound more “down” with the racial component of your guillotine modeled critique, but I don’t recall there being any signification of the gardener’s place of birth nor that he, for example, wasn’t Guatemalan.

Thanks for this blog post. I know it’s from a long time ago… I’m a lesbian and just watched this with my would-be-spouse. We were completely turned off by this film. Yes, I thought it was somewhat thought-provoking, but most of my thoughts were “god, this could have been so much better” and “god, this is such a shallow movie”.

I have a personal *special-interest* issue with the hetero-sex scene. I’ve enjoyed feeling very relaxed around hetero men because I assume that because I’m in a long-term monogamous relationship AND I’m a lesbian, I don’t have to deal with their advances. Yet they hit on me anyway. It’s irritating. They really think they have a chance, thanks in part to these kinds of lesbian portrayals.

This film could have been so much better. I wasted my time watching it, now I’m wasting time trying to cope with having seen it. It’s just distressing that there are so few lesbian movies to begin with, and that this one had to be so bad. Thanks again –

I am an Asian normal guy and am not into same-sex relationships or anything but I like watching movies especially the unconventional ones. I like to train myself to be more open-minded to understand whatever that is going on.

I respect cool people, and you guys are cool. However I can tell that this movie did not portray lesbians (or any same-sex families/couples and the underlying issues) correctly. I was just about to write my own private movie review, but as I was conflicted I decided to randomly investigate what real-life lesbians think about this movie, and that is how I came across this post.

I just like to thank you for showing me that you guys not only share the same disappointment that helped me confirmed my opinions, but also reveal to me more on the flaws, or the injustice in the movie’s viewpoints (especially since the director is herself a lesbian with children!)…and I want to let you know as well that there are straight people out there who also think that this movie is not doing enough to represent the community it is trying to portray.

This movie infuriated me! I watched this movie with my girlffiend of 2 years and we,in unison,voiced our disgust of how horrible of a job this movie depicted a lesbian relationship! I am still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that the director is a lesbian. It just sets us back 10 years, to portray lesbians as man wanting, sex hungry women. Forget throwing drinks at the screen, I’d spit, and I’m the femme one lol. I promise you, I want nothing to do with a man, I never will, and I wish I had my money back after wasting it on this piece of you know what movie!! BOOOOO!!

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