For the past couple of years I’ve been sort of whining, complaining, and ranting about how I want to see a movie that “just happens to be gay” (I’ve said that a thousand times). What I was reffering when I said that was how I was burned out on movies that had gay characters that seemed to be primarily just gay as opposed to, you know, actual three-dimensional people. I wanted a movie that was about people who didn’t go into their coming-out stories because really most of them are quite boring (I’m including myself here, guys), that didn’t proverbially wave the rainbow flag through the whole thing or try to tell what it’s like to be gay. I wanted a movie that told a story about people who lived, thought, and acted from places within themselves beyond their sexuality. Having said that, I feel like after seeing The Kids Are All Right, I’m less entitled to my complaint, and gladly so.
The movie revolves around a middle-aged lesbian couple who are just “slogging through the shit together” as Julianne Moore’s character, Jules, so aptly puts it. They have two kids, who are basically of age and have decided to contact their sperm donor, enter Paul, played by Mark Ruffalo. Carefree, boho Jules goes along with this pretty well, while uptightish, possibly alcholic, and definite workaholic Nic (played very well by Annette Bening) is more reluctant. Eventually, because of their strained marriage and quickly approaching empty-nest syndrome, Jules begins sleeping with Paul, while Nic becomes even more aloof, frustrated, and isolated.
Someone not so familiar with fertility treatments and the complications that can ensue, might look at this plotline and think “sounds pretty gay to me.” And it is because they are lesbians, but their struggle is a very universal story. What’s really being discussed in the movie is: the difficulties of parenthood, growing up, and marriage; understanding forgiveness; living to your fullest potential, and other big issues. The issue of someone “being gay” is never brought up because it doesn’t matter. The film revolves around the ups and downs of a marriage, and how people grow or don’t grow together. A fatal error in the film would have been to have Jules question her sexuality after sleeping with Paul, but she doesn’t. Whenever Paul attempts to make them a legitimate couple Jules replies with “What?? I’m gay!” The affair is treated like most affairs are in film, a bad thing that happens when good couples stop “seeing each other” as Jules says later. And of course they make up in the end, but believably so.
That believability speaks to the root of what I liked about the film: it was realistic. Obviously that’s tied into the fact that the women were potrayed as three-dimensional people, but it was more than that–almost all of the conversations in the film are realistic primarily because they’ve got “awkward” pegged. There seems to be a trend right now for people to act awkward and to be cute/funny (I’m thinking of something like the vastly varied roles of Michael Cera); I like that too, it can be hilarious, but in The Kids Are All Right we see real awkwardness between people which isn’t always hilarious or really uncomfortable either it’s just awkward–it’s what we experience all of the time. The scene in which Paul meets the kids, Lazer and Joni, is one of the best examples of that. The actors and the writing make you believe each person’s emotions and reactions. It’s like this throughout the film.
That’s not to imply that the movie is perfect because I thought both Jules and Paul could seem one-note at times, but for the most part the movie presents people and a plot that you can easily imagine in real life. However, the various struggles of each character make up for that. For instance, along with the marital journey of Jules and Nic you have the coming of age journey of their kids, and also of Paul to some extent. Both Lazer and Joni realize that their parents aren’t perfect, their hip and motorcyle driving sperm donor isn’t perfect, no one is. It’s a very fundamental lesson that could be viewed as trite if it were not so damn universal. And everyone can empathize with Joni when, after she’s found about the affair, she looks at Paul and says, “I just wish you could’ve been better.” Such a simple statement that everyone has thought about their parents, friends, and/or partners at some point. Her coming of age lesson is seen primarily in that line, and that’s enough.
It was enjoyable, and an overall good story. The movie isn’t epic, or cerebral, or exceptionally beautiful aesthetically, but that actually made me perfectly happy–because life isn’t always epic. What I mean is best summed up in the gesture between Jules and Nic at the end. It’s after they’ve dropped Joni off at college and Jules and Nic are still fighting because of the affair between Paul and Jules. Nic has basically just been tolerating Jules for the past fifteen minutes of the film, and she’s still giving her the silent treatment. Then they have a small funny moment in the car that just chips the ice and instead of having a huge dramatic saga of an apology Jules just places her hand on Nic’s knee and Nic grabs it in acceptance. That’s this movie. It’s just a small, loving gesture.