Sunday, July 18, 2010

This Is Our Family

Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right is the everyday story of a family’s response to an external threat – not, in this case, an alien invasion or a psycho who moves in next door, but rather the reemergence of the sperm donor who long ago facilitated the birth of the family’s two children. This doesn’t go back to fertility problems or other buried complexities, but rather the pragmatic necessity arising out of a partnership of two women, one that’s endured for some twenty years. When the oldest of the kids turns eighteen, she exercises her legal rights to track down the donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who’s still unmarried, and rapidly warms to the idea of making up for lost bonding time.

The Kids Are All Right

If you read the “life” section of any newspaper (so-named I guess because the rest of the paper merely tracks the slow march toward death), you’ll never have to go more than a month or two without encountering an article about modern untraditional families, where past couplings and uncouplings and sexual reassignments and traumas arrange themselves into some kind of workable dynamic. From the summary I just gave, Cholodenko’s film might sound like a contribution to that project, and her previous works – High Art and Laurel Canyon – would likely have supported that expectation. But it turns out she has something simpler in mind – to show how a family built around a gay relationship might not work that way at all. This isn’t a politically driven project, it seems, but one rooted in a particular sense of its characters and the balance between them – it feels like a movie that with slightly different casting and resulting chemistry might potentially have evolved differently.

In other words, the film mostly belongs to Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, a compelling pairing from beginning to end and often very funny. The slightly older Nic (Bening) is the breadwinner and effective head of the household, the one who lays down laws and gets things done; she’s also potentially overbearing, socially awkward, and prone to drink too much. Jules has filled the bulk of the traditional homemaker role; she’s never really got a career going, and has a flightier, more impressionistic take on life. The movie provides some quirky insights into their sex life and lots of needling: it’s probably most enjoyable when nothing in particular is happening and you just soak up the character dynamics (just as an aside though, good as the two stars are, I couldn’t help musing over whether the film might have seemed even more resonant if it had been cast more against type, with their roles reversed).

Hell And High Water

The dynamics get more complicated, of course, as the kids get to like Paul and start spending time with him, disrupting the familiar way of things and introducing a whole new source of parenting conflicts. Then Jules gets to like him too, in a whole different way. Moore and Ruffalo put this across pretty well, but it feels like a bit of a stretch. Susan G Cole in Now offered this take on it: “I might accept this narrative if it were about younger lesbians who didn’t go through the same struggle as those of who had children over 20 years ago. But long-time lesbian mothers who went through hell and high water to have kids? Hot for the donor? Not likely.”

There’s an apparent note of regret there that the film isn’t more political – it doesn’t convey much sense of that past “hell and high water.” Still, objectively speaking, the Paul/Jules development indeed doesn’t seem likely. But the convenience of it suits Cholodenko’s purpose, to show how this particular family can’t take any further radicalization – once the initial shine wears off, Paul just doesn’t really embody anything anyone needs. Some might see the way he’s ultimately treated as amounting to a loose end, but it could also be seen as quite bravely cruel, very starkly setting out the price of a family’s stability and well-being.

The best joke is in the film’s title, best spoken with the emphasis on the kids – except for a minor flutter near the end, the two kids are indeed consistently well balanced (even though the boy is saddled with the name Laser), even if the mothers aren’t. Cholodenko perhaps overstates this point a bit by making Joni’s best-friend dumbly sex-obsessed, and Laser’s best friend a stunning moron who, when they encounter an old dog in an alley, immediately unzips his fly to take a leak on its head. Maybe this aspect is mildly political; playfully suggesting that gay parenting might be the best hope for a well balanced next generation. Anyway, I guess I wouldn’t go as far as Slate’s Dana Stevens, who called The Kids Are All Right “the movie we’ve been waiting for all year,” but it’s very skillful, and a consistent pleasure.

This Is It

If you wanted a movie about truly unconventional parenting, I guess you could dramatize the life of Michael Jackson, except that after he died, the twisted history was mostly sent into the trash compactor, to be replaced by tedious assertions of his qualities as a father and a humanitarian. I still find his musical legacy a bit hard to assess – the albums have a pristine shimmer to them, and of course they’ve overflowing with terrific hooks, but listening to them is always pretty much the same experience, where the greatest records (like the greatest films) never stop offering up new mysteries and subtleties and discoveries.

I hardly cared enough to go and see This Is It, released last fall and rapidly assembled from rehearsal footage for what was to be a massive series of London comeback concerts. Watching it now on cable, it’s a bit unclear whether the show would have been assessed as a personal triumph for Jackson (other than financially). It looks like a dazzler, but because the movie concentrates so intensely on what Jackson himself is doing, you suspect it’s understating how much all the dancers and back-up singers and special effects would have compensated for the star’s frailties (understandably so, given his age and imperfect health). His singing often seems lackluster, but then again, he explicitly says he’s holding back in rehearsal to protect his throat, so you can’t assess his full capabilities.

That aside though, This Is It is surprisingly effective overall, minimizing digressions to focus on what you’d hope it was all about, musicianship and performing skill (apart from what it shows - or doesn’t - about Jackson himself, it’s quite absorbing as a generic behind-the-scenes examination of putting together a contemporary mega-production, although you suspect the process usually involves much more conflict, profanity etc. than we see here). It almost lost me altogether in allowing this all-time symbol of reckless consumption to spout on about our responsibility to heal the world, but I guess his contradictions are part of his legend now.

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