Last night I saw The Kids Are All Right for the second time in three days, this time with James and friends. At dinner afterward I asked everyone their favorite scene, and the consensus choice was the moment Annette Bening’s character Nic returns to a dinner party from a trip to the bathroom that revealed her wife’s hair in their sperm donor’s shower drain. Minutes before, Nic had been the life of this party, embarrassingly so, trying too hard to make nice with the man she intuitively dislikes who has in a matter of weeks charmed her (their) teen children and her wife (Julianne Moore as Jules). Now she takes her seat at the poisoned banquet (the meat is served blood-rare, and reference has been made to a live animal on a plate) not in a rage, but in the preceding calm, and the scene gives us a virtual-reality tour of Nic’s devastated consciousness. We see her stunned, automatic glances at the apparent strangers around the table. We hear the table banter go nasal and dim, unintelligible background noise against the sound of her downing a medicinal draught of wine. White noise rises; it could be wind in a canyon or a distant river of bees. Only a few seconds pass before the audio rights itself, but in that suspended moment both Nic and the film have undergone a transformation. Nic is no longer just the perfectionist overachieving careerist, smothering mother and neurotic middle-aged wife who irritates us as much as she does her family, she is a woman we know intimately who has had a baseball bat applied to her spirit. And the film has shed the disguise of an artfully done situation comedy and presented itself as a powerfully unfolding domestic tragedy.
As someone in an open relationship who thinks that, in most cases, monogamy is an emotional glue trap couples set for themselves at marriage and routinely forget about until one spouse finds the other, or herself, or the whole marriage, mired in adhesive and near death by various toxicities and deprivations, I find myself chronically alienated from my culture. Failure seems to me so deeply baked into the whole idea of monogamy that literary, cinematic, political and journalistic storylines built on its violation can’t hold my interest. Novelists froth up their plots, governors find their Argentinian vacations ruined, golfers lose their endorsements – I’ve heard this one already. Faced with the monogamy hysteria that drives Tolstoy from Anna Karenina’s opening unhappy family to its closing train tracks, I am emotionally handicapped by a bitchy gay voice in my head always asking, when will these people find some less stale fodder for their drama? Infidelity, as a plot device, has been done.
That bitchy gay voice sat in stunned silence watching The Kids Are All Right, along with the voices telling me I had to pee and that I wasn’t going to leave the theater for a second time with tears streaming down my face. The rare-steak scene wasn’t alone in pulling emotional levers through ingenious aesthetic devices. When the kids bring home their donor (Mark Ruffalo as Paul) to meet the moms, the scene is shot on the back porch at high noon. One shot is overexposed, the next suffers from poor contrast. In one shot a face is obscured by someone’s hand; in the next, it’s a wine bottle in the way. The picture has an overly grainy, weirdly antiqued look. Actors talk with their mouths full. All of this sets up the following scene: Nic is grilling the life out of Paul, Jules is calling Nic out on her drinking, Paul is calling Nic out on grilling him, the kids are mortified. Even if it were shot normally you would squirm under the awkwardness, but with the glitchy lighting and color correction and camera work you’re subjected to something truly excruciating, because you’re no longer watching a big-budget Hollywood movie with A-list actors, you’re watching your own home movies. You may not have a sperm donor or lesbian moms in your family, but you’ve been at this lunch. Hell is other people at a family meal.
In terms of its characters, The Kids Are All Right is the most evenly balanced ensemble piece of fiction I can name. A valid case could be made that this is any of the five characters’ story: It could be Nic's, or it could be the story of Joni, tantalizingly close at 18 to adulthood, learning how to get there from a man who never really did. Or it’s the story of Jules, whose need for approval and security has stymied a succession of careers and made her unhappily dependent on and resentful of her wife. Or it’s the story of Paul, a middle-aged man whose narcissism and conquest lust causes him to throw away an irreplaceable chance at familial love. Over the course of the film, 15-year-old Laser might get slightly short shrift in the quintet – let’s call him the viola of the ensemble – but as if to equally distribute the narrative weight the filmmakers give him the opening shot and the last.
One thing I appreciated about The Kids Are All Right is close to the heart of this blog, or at least its title – the film is resolutely post-gay. It’s not a film about gay marriage as much as it’s a film about marriage, and it's about marriage mostly insofar as it's about child-rearing, about the crazy-making dread a mother experiences on the eve of losing a daughter to her independence, about male instincts of sexual adventurism going to war with maternal instincts of family-preservation. I listened carefully the second time for moments in the film that when gay marriage per se came to the fore, and the most poignant one I caught was Joni’s tart drunken line about having done everything Nic wanted her to, gotten straight-A’s and gotten into every college so that Nic could show the world her perfect lesbian family. But even that is as much about the pressures faced by any (aspiring) model minority as it is specifically about gay marriage, or gay families.
Toward the end of the film Jules begs her family for forgiveness:
“Your mom and I are in hell right now and the bottom line is marriage is hard. It’s really fuckin hard. It’s just two people slogging through the shit, year after year, getting older, changing - fucking marathon, OK? So sometimes you know you’re together so long you stop seeing the other person, you just see weird projections of your own junk. Instead of talking to each other, you go off the rails and act grubby and make stupid choices which is what I did and I feel sick about it because I love you guys, and your mom, and that’s the truth. And sometimes you hurt the ones you love the most and I don’t know why. You know if I read more Russian novels… Anyway…I just wanted to say how sorry I am for what I did. I hope you’ll forgive me eventually. Thank you.”
What kind of long-term intimate relationship could this not describe? To say that The Kids Are All Right is about gay marriage is like saying Anna Karenina is about Russian marriage: a perfectly accurate statement that is almost entirely beside the point. The fact that gay characters are at the heart of a film this big and this good, and in which homosexuality is such a secondary concern, strikes me as a watershed event in the maturation of the culture and the movement. A crucial element of the achievement is the depth of these characters’ flaws, any one of whom could be Jules in Paul's bed, staring at the ceiling and repeating, “I am so fucked up!” The film itself emerges as the corrective foil to Nic’s stifled picture-perfect lesbian family: The Kids Are All Right is a film free of model minorities, and that’s what I call liberation.