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‘Lesbian marriage movie’ shakes up US cinema

As the gay marriage debate continues in the US, a smart, entertaining new film by Lisa Cholodenko, "The Kids Are All Right", is drawing crowds and slyly updating the big-screen standard for what is a "normal" American family.


As the battle over same-sex unions continues in the US, a film dubbed “the lesbian marriage movie” is becoming a breakaway hit.
Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right”, received rapturously by critics when it opened July 9 in major American cities, currently has the highest per-screen average (amount of money the film is making at the box office divided by the number of theatres showing it) of any film out in the US. Though it is hard to predict how the movie will play outside progressive urban centres, expectations are high for the nationwide release later this summer.

There is nothing conspicuously revolutionary about the “The Kids Are All Right”, a sleek, smart, enormously entertaining film about a middle-aged lesbian couple (played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) whose teenage kids seek out the sperm donor who is their biological father (Mark Ruffalo); it has big-name actors, a sun-dappled Los Angeles setting, and the feel of a classic Hollywood comedy at its snappiest.

But “The Kids Are All Right” is, in fact, a slyly political piece of work, less for its subject than for the way it presents that subject. Gay marriage and same-sex parenthood in the suburban world of the film are shown as facts of modern American life, represented with a cheerful wholesomeness that could appeal to various ideological leanings. National Public Radio (NPR) film critic Ella Taylor wrote: “It's hard to imagine any but the most dour and humourless taking offense at this essentially sweet-natured movie”.

The film’s approach, as well as its timing (more states are legalising same-sex unions), has positioned “The Kids Are All Right” to be what film historian Mark Harris, in an interview with, called a “zeitgeist movie”: a film with the potential to update the onscreen standard for what is a “normal” American family.

An all-American family

Same-sex relationships in American films have been the stuff of tortured melodrama (“Brokeback Mountain”), broad comedy (“The Birdcage”), or indie oddities filled with drugs, kinky sex, and black eye shadow (“Bound”, “Shortbus”). In those films, homosexuality is portrayed as a distinctly alternative lifestyle.

Lisa Cholodenko’s filmography:

“The Kids are All Right“ (2010)

“Cavedweller” (2004)

“Laurel Canyon” (2002)

“High Art” (1998)

In comparison, it would be difficult to label the lesbian couple in “The Kids Are All Right” as marginal or subversive. Indeed, the joke at the heart of the film is how conventional a family Nic, Jules, and their two kids form. Nic, a doctor, is the breadwinner and disciplinarian, while Jules is the flightier, nurturing homemaker. Both are involved in the lives of their basically well-adjusted teenage kids (a brainy girl and her athletic younger brother) and slightly judgemental of others. Watching an early scene in which the family eats dinner, familiar crosscurrents of chit-chatty affection and nagging make us forget we are seeing something unusual in Hollywood cinema.

In a promotional interview, director Cholodenko, herself a lesbian raising a child with her partner, said it felt natural to place this family in a recognisable cultural context. “I know some will say, ‘Oh, there’s an unconventional family, two mums and their kids’”, she explained. “To me, it looks pretty typical. We’re putting it onscreen in a way that isn’t part of a politicised environment. It’s just, ‘Here’s this family’”.

The alternative lifestyle in the film -- and the catalyst for its drama – is not gay marriage or same-sex parenthood, but the freewheeling existence of an unattached heterosexual male: Paul, the sperm donor father whose rootlessness stands in contrast with the lesbian couple’s stability.

As Paul bonds with the kids he never knew he had, and gets dangerously close to one of their mothers, the family’s cohesiveness is tested. Director and co-writer Cholodenko doesn’t shy away from exposing the family’s particular vulnerabilities. She shows the kids’ curiosity about having a male authority figure in their lives, and their receptiveness to one whose laid-back vibe tempers their mums’ more high-strung intensity.

Meanwhile, the way Nic and Jules raise their children - their neediness of their children’s love, their fierce protectiveness of the family - seems to be affected by their awareness that they are exercising a right that couples like them did not always enjoy. Every misstep and obstacle along the way is fraught with the fear that somehow it could all be taken away.

Erasing boundaries between ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ content

But Cholodenko never puts gay marriage or same-sex parenthood on trial. She shows the problems experienced by this family as variations of classic domestic anxieties - restlessness, crises of fidelity and identity - similar to what any parents and kids might face.

Cholodenko’s success in making particular circumstances seem universal is part of what has made the “The Kids Are All Right” a sensation, inciting critics to declare it not just a good film, but a significant one: Lisa Schwarzbaum, in her review for magazine Entertainment Weekly, wrote that the movie “erases the boundaries between specialised ‘gay content’ and universal ‘family content’”.

Some have gone even further, suggesting that the film has not only reshaped big-screen conceptions of the American family, but also the real-life debate about gay marriage. “The movie correctly takes the fact that gay marriages already exist as a given”, film historian Mark Harris said. “And in doing that [it] makes it clear that no amount of homophobia is going to succeed in wishing away these lives and these families – in that way, the anti-gay-marriage lobbyists have already lost the fight they think they're having”.

For others, “The Kids Are All Right” can change people’s minds by fulfilling its primary purpose: to entertain - a mission the film accomplishes brilliantly. “If ‘The Kids Are All Right’ may be an effective weapon in the cultural wars, that's not because it's offering some radical new vision of marriage and family”, noted critic Andrew O’Hehir. “It's because it's so real, so sexy, so sad, so honest and so truly, heartbreakingly funny”.

“The Kids Are All Right” will be released in France on October 6.

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