Film writer AJ Caulfield has taken the #52FilmsbyWomen pledge, where she will watch one movie directed by a women per week throughout 2018. Here on The Young Folks, AJ reflects on the films she’s viewed — including female-directed classics and new-to-the-scene flicks — in efforts to celebrate female voices in the media landscape. Learn more about the #52FilmsbyWomen project here.
When I first watched Lisa Cholodenko’s heart-rending comedy The Kids Are All Right, I failed to see its nuances. It was 2010, I was on the cusp of 16 years old, and didn’t believe in looking at movie trailers before I headed to the cinema to catch a film, my flimsy American Eagle purse stuffed side to side with homemade popcorn and Dollar Store-bought confections in the days before one evil man made us frightened of what people might bring from the outside world into the safety of a silver-screen theater.
Nearly eight years later, I’m approaching my 24th trip around the sun, have to actively stop myself from learning too much about the films before they’re released, and finally understand the vivid emotionality and the profoundness of Cholodenko’s story.
Back then, in my naïveté, I believed The Kids Are All Right to be simply about a lesbian marriage. Now, I know there’s so much more to it than that.
Through the flame-haired and perpetually restless Jules (Julianne Moore) and the bespectacled breadwinner Nic (Annette Bening) — who bring up a son named Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and daughter called Joni (Mia Wasikowska), both conceived using the same sperm donor but whose biological mother is one of the Jules-Nic pair — Cholodenko captures the institution of marriage as a whole, filtered through the unique Americana cultural lens that few are able to materialize.
The couple, the Allgoods, possess all the characteristics of normal, joyful, upper middle-class living: children who navigate the rocky waters of adolescence, bills that they wish they could ignore but can’t, a sensible car to drive around the Southern California suburbs, groceries that fill up the cabinets and cupboards of a tidy kitchen.
But they’ve also got the mess that comes with marriage, and the melancholy — but not quite crisis, not yet — that hits just past the mid-life checkpoint.
It’s here where things begin to unravel, and the beating heart of The Kids Are All Right becomes exposed. Jules’ career-hopping and Nic’s firmly planted feet clash against one another now more than ever, and while the two are not unhappy with each other, they’re noticeably frustrated and confused about their own lives and the life they share. They’re, you know, normal.
Laser and Joni experience the same kind of uncertainty — except it’s the teenage hormone-influenced kind that makes them want to scream, “WHO AM I, AND WHY AM I HERE?” while listening to angsty guitar-heavy bands. The response to those questions is a hunt for their biological father, a mission that Nic and Jules would totally approve of in theory but aren’t quite supportive of (read: staunchly against) in actuality.
The teens’ track-down leads them to Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a go-with-the-flow, salt-of-the-earth guy who could have easily been the son of a flower child and who seems content with not exerting any effort that would alter his current situation of unmarried semi-bliss. That is, until a meeting with Jules (whose new interest in landscape design requires Paul’s gardening expertise) ends in the two having sex.
It’s a secret that isn’t long kept, though it could have been tucked away in the shrouds and shades Nic and Jules’ two decade-long marriage. Out pour real feelings — not the aggrandized grief of soap opera stuff: Nic feels betrayed, Paul and Jules feel guilty. And, surprisingly, Laser and Joni feel connected to Paul in ways they haven’t felt toward their own mothers. What becomes of a marriage, of a family, then?
Much like the nature of the film’s emotion, the actions that follow the affair coming to light are realistic. There are no glass bottles thrown, no wardrobes chucked over railings and lit on fire in the front yard, no fist-fights had or guns drawn or names called. Replacing the dramatics are tearful admissions of wrongdoings, necessary confrontations, and a resolution that’s right. In such a situation, when a human question mark stands in front of and between Nic and Jules, the two go through the motions of their marriage, a marriage like any other couples’, to ensure that they are happy and that the kids are all right.
Even so many years after its release, The Kids Are All Right feels like it’s nestled in a league of its own. A family with two women at the head and two teenage children who were concocted in a test tube aren’t uncommon, but the way in which Cholodenko tells the true-to-the-heart tale of Nic and Jules, Laser and Joni, and Paul, of course, is agile and unprecedented. The characters are superbly written (their speech patterns and turn of emotion in talks are natural and unassuming, sounding like many conversations I’ve heard and had in my adult life). The cast’s performances are worthy of deafening applause (particular kudos to Bening for knowing how to use silence as a tool). The deft humor is enough to make your sides stitch up (Moore and Ruffalo’s interactions flattened me out in the best way).
The marvel of The Kids Are All Right is not that Cholodenko created a film about a queer couple in a time where gay marriage wasn’t yet a legal right across the nation. That it’s remarkably real, that the “This is a Gay Movie” label so many (including my past self) stamped it with fades away long before you realize you’ve fallen in love with everyone on screen, that it’s an exploration of modern marriage without any pessimistic drivel makes The Kids Are All Right truly extraordinary.