“Why do you guys watch gay man porn?” Laser asks his two moms uncomfortably, looking down. Nic speaks first by deflecting the question and chastising her son for snooping around in their bedroom, but Jules interrupts her and answers honestly.
“Well, sweetie, you know, human sexuality is complicated and sometimes desire can be, you know, counter-intuitive. For example, because women’s sexual responsiveness is internalized, sometimes it’s exciting for us to see responsiveness externalized, like with a… like with a penis.”
“Wouldn’t you guys just rather watch girls doing it though?” Laser continues to look down at the counter top.
Jules jumps in right away. “Well, you would think that, but usually in these movies they hire two straight women to pretend…”
“That’s enough!” Nic cuts her off, embarrassed by her partner’s full disclosure.
This kind of thought-provoking dialogue is pure gold, but there’s no more of its kind in The Kids Are All Right, the critically acclaimed Academy Award Nominee for Best Picture in 2010. That’s the end of the conversation and the topic is not raised again. Nevertheless, this tiny snippet of a scene is enough for the movie to get one thumbs up from me.
That one insightful conversation about human sexual desire is not all that makes this film groundbreaking. It simultaneously reveals and normalizes the life and trials of a family with two lesbian mothers. At its core, it is not about homosexuality, coming out, or seeking equality; it is about family values.
On top of that, the lesbian relationship between Nic and Jules is not sexualized. It is a realistic depiction of a middle-aged couple with children. The relationship between them and their two teenage kids is not disturbing or even unusually awkward. It is appropriately nuanced and loving. Basically, anybody could look at this imperfect but stable family and find pieces they can relate to. It is one huge step forward for the LGBT community and the fight for marriage equality. One of the arguments against marriage for same-sex couples is that children need a father and a mother, but with superb acting and real writing, The Kids Are All Right makes a subtle but strong opposing argument, as its title suggests.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t end there. In comes Paul, the free-loving foodie sperm donor for Joni and Laser. It’s not that I don’t like the guy as a character; he’s totally my type. But his character’s involvement in the story ultimately adds a layer of controversy to the movie that the world could have done without.
Remember that explanation of human sexuality and desire that was so honest and thought-provoking? It is all cast into question when Jules enters into an affair with Paul. My worst fears were realized when I had a talk with one of my film critic friends about the movie. I mentioned how I loved that scene and he said, “Yeah, it’s really interesting, but then at the end you find out she just digs men.”
No, no, no, no, no, NO! Stop right there!!
This is my problem with the movie. Not that Jules has an affair, but that she has an affair with a man. Whoa! A lesbian having an affair with a man? She CAN’T be a lesbian, then! She must have been lying about the porn; she must be a closeted bisexual. The whole world is now confused, and they think Jules is too. The affair de-legitimizes Jules’ and Nic’s marriage and their excellent reason for watching gay man porn, which might have stood a chance at making people think twice about what makes porn sexy or not. Now? Who knows.
The affair also gives Paul more power to shape conversations about the movie. It’s too easy for everybody to refer to him as a father. Stop that! He donated sperm; he is not a father.
I understand that Paul is necessary to the plot of the movie. Laser is curious about what having a dad might feel like and contacting his sperm donor is as close as he can get. I do like this dynamic. At first, Laser is excited and Joni is not. When they eventually meet him and Laser discovers Paul is “not into teams” or sports, he is less than enamored. Joni, however, clicks with him right away.
In this way, the typical assumption that a boy needs a male role model is counteracted. Laser discovers he doesn’t need a dad after all. Joni always knew she didn’t need a dad, but she can still like Paul, and she does, because they have a lot in common.
This would have been enough of a story without the affair between Jules and Paul. It would have been enough to demonstrate how well the kids had grown up without a father and to show that their interactions with their sperm donor were supplemental and only necessary for their own peace of mind. Instead, the film takes one step back by confusing the audience and de-legitimizing the already complex ideas and relationships.
Let me be clear: I do not personally believe that an affair with a man requires heterosexuality or even bisexuality, but the masses are not yet ready for that concept without a more thorough explanation. The complex situation surrounding the affair is discussed briefly in the climax of the movie but not enough to convince an already skeptical audience with limited information and a very culture-determined understanding of sexuality.
Nic asks Jules angrily, “Are you straight now?” And so does everybody else.
But just like I’ve written about before, sexual attraction is not always so cut-and-dry. Often, attraction has more to do with a person than with their genitals, and with the emotional connection one feels. Jules has been married to Nic for a long time and loves her, but feels disconnected from her and unappreciated. When Paul shows interest in her work, pays attention to her, and takes her seriously, he becomes irresistible. It has nothing to do with him being a man.
But unless everybody who sees this movie understands that, it will perpetuate some unfortunate stereotypes about attraction, no longer influenced by the excellent insight given to Laser.
I give this film one thumbs up and one down. It made some important steps, but there are more to be taken, and this one could have done better. Next step:
- A movie about a similar family that doesn’t involve the sperm donor.
- A movie that includes confusing situations but addresses them thoroughly.
I will leave you with this lovely quote from Annette Bening, who plays Nic in The Kids Are All Right.
If you can open people’s hearts, then maybe people’s minds get opened after. ~Annette Bening