“The Kids Are All Right” is the “Fatal Attraction” of the 2010s. In this case, the nuclear family has two mothers, the partner in the illicit fling is a man, and no bunnies are killed. The only casualties, in fact, are lesbian sexuality and the reputation of the single person.
Nic, a doctor, and her wife, Jules, a landscape designer, live in the LA burbs with their two teenage kids. Their son, Laser (where did they get that name?) becomes curious about his biological father, but because he’s 15 and legally too young to contact the sperm bank, he convinces his sister, Joni, to make the call. Soon they’ve met Paul, a restaurateur in his late ’30s who made the deposit when he was 19 and broke, and Laser’s curiosity and Nic and Jules’ relationship troubles lead to all hell breaking loose.
This movie’s most obvious problem is racism, which makes it no different than 95% of Hollywood product. As usual in these mainstream family comedies, the protagonists are white and upper-middle-class, and although they live in southern California, they have limited contact with people of color. Paul has a Black lover, Tanya, but this relationship is portrayed as part of his immaturity and rootlessness – they have a casual arrangement that includes hot sex, but when he thinks he’s falling in love with Jules, he dumps Tanya. Joni is infatuated with her friend Jai, but he doesn’t respond, and it’s never clear whether he’s gay or simply not attracted to her. In “The Kids Are All Right,” people of color are on the sidelines, at best. At worst, they’re caricatures – Nic and Jules gratuitously watch a National Geographic film showing an African man circling a white man with a knife, and Jules treats her landscaping assistant, Luis, so poorly, she might have picked him yesterday out of a pool of day laborers. Luis’ dialogue – “Yes, señora; no, señora” – makes him sound like a Latino Stepin Fetchit.
Woman-to-woman sexuality fares even worse. If this is the only portrayal of lesbians to which viewers are exposed, they might reasonably conclude that two women cannot enjoy sex together without a penis. As Jules explains to Laser, sexuality is complicated, and so-called lesbian porn often pairs straight-looking women for the viewing pleasure of straight men. I know plenty of lesbians and bi and queer women who use gay porn to get off, and I’d even buy that a middle-aged lesbian couple might have grown attached to their 1980s Colt videos of boys bum-fucking. But this is another in a long line of movies that purport to be about a lesbian family, yet contains scene after scene of hot, humping hetero sex, and one desultory view of Jules buried under the covers, apparently licking away at Nic, who leans against the headboard completely covered in a T-shirt, not responding to her lover’s ministrations and complaining that the guys in the porn video aren’t to her taste. Once again, girls just can’t have any fun without a dick, whether it’s on a Colt star or the sperm donor. Puh-leeze. I realize the filmmaker is trying to show that Nic and Jules are suffering from lesbian bed death, or the doldrums that can hit any long marriage, but this can be done without insisting that het sex is the only hot ticket on the planet and women never do anything but fondle each other’s knees. Annette Bening is extremely attractive and Julianne Moore ain’t too shabby, but there is zero chemistry between them.
I’ve simply had it with films in which queers have absolutely no community. We all have friends – except in Hollywood. Even in the one scene in which Jules and Nic go out to dinner, they’re shown at the restaurant with a male-female couple. Come on – these women live in southern California and speak psychobabble. They’re attractive, educated, financially well-off, and have an enormous, beautiful house and near-perfect teenagers. They have no lesbian or queer women friends, no parents, siblings, acquaintances? Their kids have no uncles or moms’ gay friends who hang out with them? Most of the lesbian mothers I’ve known have had male relatives or friends in their lives or have made some other effort to provide their children with positive male role models. I’ve never known any LBGT people as isolated as these two, except for a few folks who need an effective antidepressant. It’s more likely that Jules would’ve had an affair with Pamela from her lesbian moms support group from the early ’90s, Patty from the small business owners’ circle, Paulita from the women’s gardening group, or Priscilla from down the street, than with Paul, her childrens’ sperm donor whom she just met a week ago.
I can’t say I feel sorry for Paul, as his character isn’t particularly likeable. Mark Ruffalo seems to think that if he mumbles enough, someone will compare him to Marlon Brando at the height of his career. Paul doesn’t have enough bad boy or rebel in him to be interesting, and it’s hard to see exactly what his appeal is to heterosexual women – or to Jules, for that matter. His only insightful moment is telling Laser that the boy’s friend, Clay – a dopey, coke-snorting, cruel kid who breaks his arm skateboarding off a garage roof – isn’t treating him well. But the character of Paul represents single people, just as Glenn Close’s character in “Fatal Attraction” represented single, sexually active women. At the end of “The Kids Are All Right,” Nic dismisses Paul as an “interloper,” telling him that if he wants a family, he needs to make his own. Nic closes her front door; Paul has a tiny tantrum in the alley and presumably roars off on his motorcycle. The next day, the parents and kids pile into the mini-van to drive daughter Joni to college, and the white nuclear family triumphs again, this time with two moms at the helm.
In fact, this film could easily have been cast with a man in the role of Nic, the older and more butch, harder drinking, critical, and no-nonsense of the two women, the one with a professional, high-earning career who urged Jules to stay home with the kids when Joni and Laser were young. Heck, you wouldn’t even have to change the character’s name. This is nowhere more evident than in the film’s denouement, when Nic stands at the front door and declares to Paul, “This is my family.” Couldn’t have been said better by Marlon Brando himself.