I was a skeptic. When I first heard of The Kids Are All Right, a film about a pair of lesbian moms whose kids go in search of their sperm donor—only to have one of the moms start an affair with him—I had a major eyeball-rolling moment. I feared the film would convey that a lesbian really just needs a man, that children need a father figure, or that children of donor insemination are in some way deprived of an essential connection in their lives.
My fears were unwarranted. Director Lisa Cholodenko (who shares writing credit with Stuart Blumberg) has deftly avoided these pitfalls and given us one of the most believable and positive fictional portrayals of a lesbian family I’ve ever seen. Cholodenko accomplishes this by keeping the focus on the universals of human relationships, not—despite the plot premise—on how lesbian families are “different” from others.
It helps that Annette Bening and Julianne Moore’s Nic and Jules feel like a real suburban lesbian couple. There is no L Word glamour here, just two middle-aged women with their Volvo and pickup truck and daily routine of work and dinner and hanging out in the living room.
On one level, the film could be about any family with a new person in their lives, a couple hitting the doldrums of a long-term relationship, and two teens on the cusp of adulthood. The fact that the new person happens to be the children’s donor is a timely modern twist—but the film is more about human interactions and less about sperm donors per se.
At the same time, Cholodenko has created a perceptive portrait of the teens’ relationship to their donor. Fifteen-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is curious about who the man is. Joni (Mia Wasikowska), who is eighteen, worries that reaching out to their donor could hurt their moms’ feelings. Under the terms of the donor agreement, however, she is the only one old enough to call him, and eventually does so. It is a nice touch, balancing the eagerness of one child with the reluctance of the other, showing that not all children of donor insemination (DI) have the same feelings about their donors.
Even for Laser, though, the search for his donor is not to fill some huge void in his life, but simply to complete one piece of the puzzle about who he is. Based on real-life surveys of teens with lesbian and gay parents, such as COLAGE’s Donor Insemination Guide and Abigail Garner’s Families Like Mine, that is a more common response than the emptiness and trauma that various ultra-right studies have attributed to children of DI.
We should commend Cholodenko, too, for focusing on a family with teens rather than one with younger children or still trying to get pregnant—clichés of almost every other media portrayal of lesbian parents. This also means that the donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), while he offers some advice to Joni and Laser, is not a major influence in how they turn out. As almost-adults, they have already “turned out”—and they are indeed all right. Paul is their donor, and not insignificant, but he is not their dad. It is clear that two lesbians can successfully rear children without one.
The film also touches on the pressure to be perfect often faced by children of lesbian and gay parents. “Now you can tell everyone what a perfect lesbian family you have,” Joni resentfully tells Nic at one point, straining against parental mandates. It would be merely a nod to the pressure noted by COLAGE, Garner, and others—but Cholodenko expands it to a universal when Joni in turn says to Paul, “I wish that you could have been better.” Sometimes we humans pressure others in the same ways we hate to be pressured ourselves. Cholodenko thus simultaneously informs the audience about lesbian families and shows how much of our experience is really a subset of the greater human experience.
My other big fear, that Jules’ affair with Paul would have her questioning her lesbianism, vanished without a trace. “Are you straight now?” Nic asks Jules upon learning of the affair. “It has nothing to do with that,” Jules responds—and it doesn’t. Jules was simply looking for an affection she hadn’t been getting from workaholic Nic. Paul, with a ready-made connection to their family, was convenient. I won’t reveal the final resolution, except to say I was not disappointed.
Some may criticize the film for showing more sex scenes with Paul and a woman than with Nic and Jules. I say there’s just as much complaint to be made that shows such as The Real L Word focus too much on the “sex” part of lesbian lives. If Kids shows the lesbians having less sex than the straight couples, then maybe that helps balance out the myth of the sex-obsessed LGBT community.
The film also steers clear of overt political messages. Cholodenko shows us, rather than tells us, that Nic and Jules’ family has the same strengths and foibles as any other. Jules and Nic refer to themselves as married, and that is that. It is a stronger message than any preachy asides about marriage equality or adoption rights.
As a middle-aged lesbian mom myself, I was thrilled to see a portrayal of middle-aged lesbian moms that—while not identical to my own experience—was both believable and entertaining. My spouse hasn’t seen it yet—but I’m thinking it will be the perfect date movie for us the next time our sitter is free.
Photo Credit: Suzanne Tenner.