Friday, July 16, 2010

Gay parents face an empty nest

One big, not-always-happy family.

Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right has been widely hailed as an important, absorbing and entertaining work. I mention the positive buzz -- complete with a fawning Charlie Rose love-in that lasted nearly an hour -- not to cavil and carp, but to clue you in. Lots of substantial voices rank Cholondenko's movie as one of the year's best.

I wish I could add mine to the rising chorus of acclaim, but I found the movie to be only mildly amusing, a work that lacks the richness that we expect from movies that approach any sort of greatness. If I had to classify Cholendenko's movie, I'd call it a reasonably typical indie effort built around a subject that deserves more attention, long-term gay relationships and the establishment of new kinds of families.

The movie focuses on a lesbian relationship in which each of the partners has had a child thanks to sperm from the same donor. When the movie opens, the kids are mired in adolescence, and one of them -- a 15-year-old boy -- decides that he'd like to meet his biological father. The other, an 18-year-old girl who's college bound, goes along with her brother's wishes.

The idea of exploring what might happen if a man suddenly emerged as an important figure in the lives of these kids is intriguing, but the resultant film doesn't live up to the promise, perhaps because it's a little too content to swim in the mainstream. Cholendko's humor isn't overly broad, but it's not full of subtlety or resonance, either.

I wish the movie had been more about the kids than the adults. I say this because the performances by Mia Wasikowska, familiar from Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland,* and Josh Hutcherson, who has less prominent big-screen exposure, perfectly capture the anger and confusion of adolescents who are on the brink of leaving home. Both Hutcherson's Laser (I'm not kidding about the name) and Wasikowska's Joan seem to have adopted patronizing but entirely credible attitudes toward their parents. When the women -- whom they call "the moms" -- tell the story of how they met for the gazillionth time, the kids react with eye-rolling disapproval.

The two main adult roles are played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. Bening's Nic, a physician by trade, is the alpha partner in a 20-year relationship that's lost some of its spark. Moore's Jules has focused on raising the kids, and is just beginning to think about returning to a career as a landscape designer, a task made more difficult by her lack of self-esteem.

Mark Ruffalo does some of his best work yet, as Paul, the sperm donor who suddenly finds himself involved in the lives of Nic, Jules and their two kids. Paul runs a restaurant that specializes in locally grown food; he's casually self-absorbed, which is more than you can say for either Jules or Nic; their self-asbsorption is pretty intense.

But here's the thing: Paul is an appealing and amusing character until the movie tries to turn the tables on him as the result of a plot twist that can't be revealed here. For the record, I didn't find that twist entirely credible.

Some critics have commented that The Kids Are All Right makes an important and timely point: Gay and straight marriages aren't all that different. Same problems. Same annoyances. Same possibilities for betrayal. Same opportunities for forgiveness. Fair enough, and Choldenko wisely refrains from pushing any agenda.

The movie's major lesbian sex scene is played for laughs, which -- or so it seems to me -- lets mainstream audiences off the hook. I'm not arguing for explicit sex, and I wouldn't even mention any of this if the movie didn't include heterosexual sex scenes that are more explicit, although they, too, have comic intentions.

So I leave it to you. Know that the positive reviews outweigh the negative and make your own judgments. I'll hang back here with the less enthusiastic crowd, continuing to wait for a movie that had a little more to say about a subject that deserves its own movie, hopefully more than one.

*Thanks to the reader who pointed out that I initially and incorrectly said that Mia Wasikowska had been in The Lovely Bones. No excuse, really. Just dumb on my part.

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