The Kids Are All Right: Where Moms Are A Couple, By Any Other Name

Because interaction can’t exist in a vacuum, it seems fair to say human activity is defined by relationship. To self, to other, to the inanimate or agile. To time.

Because interaction can’t exist in a vacuum, it seems fair to say human activity is defined by relationship. To self, to other, to the inanimate or agile. To time. Mostly, explorations of relationship in cinema revolve about romance.

How famished we must all be, for a broader release of all KINDS of relationship; those that make Philosophy and Visual Art appealing but poor substitutes for the real thing. It has been easier to market a Drama of Relationship than unspool modern threads: the relationships between emotions and decisions that shape what we do now, who we are today. Beyond  prosocial emotion — waves in that undertow of beingness that shapes being in itself. 

Kelly Reichardt’s films are riveting for taking on that challenge: of exploring human relationships beyond friendship and romance. Wendy and Lucy for example: Lucy the dog is the pivotal partner of Wendy’s unraveling. Old Joy seemed as much about relation to place and timing as the arc of friendship. Sparse and clean of cinematic gloss, Reichardt’s films enable a contemplation that I’ve heard described as “boring”.  Well, as with anything in life: complacency is exactly that, boring. Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right reminded me of the intense awareness in Kelly Reichardt’s filming style. If to direct is to invoke, these three films do just that.

Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right is receiving backlash from audiences regarding its dismal portrayal of a lesbian relationship. Only this film isn’t really about lesbian relationships — it’s a story about a particular struggle at a particular time in the (r)evolutions of a couple.

A marriage is  more than “two people, slogging through the shit”, as Jules declares near the end of the film. This couple just happens to be in some seriously deep slog. Lesbian or not, that is human relationship: real couples go through cycles of timing. Or the lack of. Couples with children are challenged by all KINDS of timing, which is inherently addressed in the film’s title reference song: someone is usually left behind with the kids.

Although the only lesbian sex scene didn’t represent sapphic love at its best, or even at all, it was a realistic depiction of how disconnected couples can become through expectation. Primarily, the film highlights the aftermath of  tipping points: first daughter leaving home for college, the maternal struggling with identity, the paternal mismanaging overwhelm and pressure.  We see how banality and invisibility can appear in commitment (Nic and Jules) contrasted to how empty and shallow free-spirited sex becomes (Paul, the sperm donor).

Nic and Jules have been described as typical lesbian, over-parenting members of a bourgeois class. Really? I mean, suddenly the bourgeois stereotype is that of concerned lesbians? Wouldn’t that be wonderful.

What is true, is that the bourgeois class does over-parent, in the guise of preparing heirs for future privilege. Heirs, not children. There’s a difference between deep concern and worry about the world of teenagers and that bourgeois strategy of social climbing that passes for parenting. Ilene Chaiken’s Bette and Tina did their share of over-parenting too and that fictional couple dealt with similar challenges: the necessity of power-mommying in high-stress professions.

To audiences hungry to be inspired and elated by relatable lesbian narratives, what we see of Nic and Jules will not live up to positive romantic potentials of two moms in love. The cinematic treatment is one of normality. The kind of normality that in a decade might be perceived as an epic of power-struggles in a modern family dynamic; just as Working Girls was, and is, to workplace relationship.

To those who didn’t see any positive message for lesbian marriage in this film, consider this: their offspring is possibly, the best children ever in the cinematic landscape! Also, isn’t it enough of a statement that it took a lesbian couple to turn free-wheeling Paul onto the idea of family and commitment?

When Paul eventually falls for Jules, he is really falling in love with the idea that his actions have potential for more meaningful consequences. Paul embodied the cinematic archetype of an ‘Easy Rider’ who realizes there is more than one way to reject the same patriarchy he finds oppressing. (Remember, he is an organic locavore, an excellent cook, loves Joni Mitchell and reminds Laser that opening one’s heart is hard enough in life without needing to be made fun of. Stone machos don’t go anywhere near THAT.) I’ll take an awkward sex scene over yet another contrived, same-sex-sensational scene of intimacy. Why repeat a cinematic cliché? Okay, maybe Jules’ exclamation at the sight of a male penis was surprising — had she not seen an adult one before? Most curious!

Photograph by Suzanne Tenner. Mark Ruffalo, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in Lisa Cholodenko’s THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, a Focus Features release. Image courtesy Focus Features.

It’s easy to blame Paul for the disturbance of infidelity. Again, timing. Were Jules and Nic on sturdier emotional ground, there wouldn’t have been room for Paul. Paul’s tragic failure is in not realizing that Laser, his biological son, wanted nothing from him but benevolent initiation into manhood. Raised in a family of women, Laser was not searching for a masculine presence in his life, but for deeper initiation. Boys becoming men don’t provide that for each other, as shown by Laser’s conflicted friend. Contemporary society completely fails at transitions.

By initiation, I don’t mean Sweet Sixteens. I don’t mean the Pagliast notion that same sex parenting fails — no, I refer to the poet Robert Bly’s call for men to initiate boys into society without shaming boys into men, without sacrificing the soul purity we are all born with. But as the son of two mothers, Laser is the modern prodigal son in the enviable position of defining his own masculinity. And he takes initiative through collaboration, conveying to Joni how important it is for him to meet his biological father. When his own friend (taller, meaner) attacked him, Laser fought back but maintained an admirable dignity. I wish it had been real life — I want today’s adolescent males to have positive self-esteem, skateboard, defend animals, think ethically and have a wicked sense of humor. It’s not too much to ask, is it? 

As the typical older sister, Joni is an authoritative guide and close confidant to her brother. Even when struggling with her own desire, Joni rejects the hyper-sexualized thinking of her female peers. She also rejects imposition of female elders in her tribe, proving she thinks for herself and her initiation into womanhood has been peaceful, resolved. She is intensely aware of what it means to be herself, to want what she wants. And that’s why, these kids are indeed alright.

There’s been so much focus on the the film’s title as indicative of the narrative’s cinematic focus. I had to Google the lyrics to the title song, which starts off with  “I don’t mind other guys dancing with my girl, That’s fine, I know them all pretty well…” Is that an admission of trust?

After seeing the film, and especially the last scene, the message seemed to be “The kids are alright, what about us?”  How will Nic and Jules define their union after witnessing the dislodging of two individuals carving lives and identities, while working in demanding environments and building a family? Have they done as good a job on themselves as they did with their kids? This is the fundamental question at the end of the film. It’s a coming of age story for the entire family dynamic, not just the adolescents.