Monday, July 19, 2010
"The Kids Are Alright"...But the Parents Are A Mess
Lisa Cholodenko's latest film "The Kids Are Alright" (2010) has received glowing reviews, including New York Times' A.O. Scott's coveted status as a "critic's pick." It is indeed a fine piece of work but as a symptom of the Zeitgeist, it makes me utterly despondent.
Reader beware: if you haven't seen the film and care about suspense, read a real reviewer, someone who knows better than to reveal key plot details. This is for people who've seen the film or who like to know what they're getting into (or avoiding).
As the trailer suggests, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) have raised two children to whom they each gave birth, respectively, from the sperm of the same donor (Mark Ruffalo). The kids are teenagers, one is leaving for college, and "Dad" is suddenly on the scene, and connecting with Jules in a way that poor Nic never has and never will. (Paul and Jules have passionate sex; Jules and Nic seem to have done nothing but hold hands for years and years.)
Worse, there was nothing else that seemed meaningful between them except the responsibilities of parenting.
A lawyer was among the friends with whom I saw the film. Over hot dogs (with and without meat) and beer on a fabulous Manhattan patio the size of Nic's and Jules' SUV, he disagreed with this assessment and said that they shared a connection. Evidence of this was the story they told in response to Paul's (Ruffalo's) question about how they met. But that particular story was really a portrait of two forlorn people whose meeting-story had been told so many times it was drained of emotion or meaning, a worn out touchstone for a romance that was never more than the aspiration for romance based on insidious films like Cholodenko's (but hopefully those films had plots that depicted actual romance).
Someone else who approved of the film's message replied that marriage's magic was not always apparent to the outsider.
True enough. But this is a drama, not a documentary.
(It really bothers me when educated people talk about the secret, private lives of fictional characters, mostly because it's a symptom of the primitive intuitions that persist when it comes to narrative, a low-level of common sense intolerable in any other field.)
Anything we see or do not see in "The Kids Are Alright" is because Cholodenko made a choice. If she wanted to show a hidden connection between Nic and Jules, she was free to do just that. Sure, it was a tight budget but it doesn't cost less to shoot constant fuming anger, frustration, and despair than empathy and joy. In the film Cholodenko co-wrote and directed, she made a choice to celebrate a relationship between two people who were unable to bring happiness to the other, and who kept disappointing these expectations, making matters worse.
Charity Scribner, a comparative literature professor at CUNY, agreed that the film showed nothing redeeming in the relationship between the moms, and then made the brilliant point that she thought this was Cholodenko's intention. After all, Charity said, the title is "The Kids Are Alight." Cholodenko is making an incisive observation about generations, Charity suggested. The lesbian moms reproduced the same suburban pain and suffering they were taught in their own homes. The teleology of their remaining together merely represented a culture for which they were they last forbears. Their own children, who were the film's primary conduits of light and possibility, were now free to do something different, something better, something meaningful, something honest and fun.
Charity's partner disagreed and said the film really was about two people just sticking it out.
Alas, having read the interviews with Cholodenko, it appears that while Charity's film was brilliant, her partner was correct; Cholodenko's intentions really were banal and reactionary.
If you google "Cholodenko intervew," portions of which seem to be channeling James Dobson and Phyllis Schlafly, you'll see what I mean.
The moral of Cholodenko's film, at least according to Cholodenko, is: who cares about anything except the fact that they stay together? Isn't that what families are for? In Cholodenko's film, the country's 50 per cent divorce rate is the talismanic enemy, not a symptom of a painful, archaic institution that Cholodenko reveals as stifling desire, sex, and connection.
The problem with the film is that the relationship between the moms is hollow, miserable, depressing and without any redeemable qualities, save that they raised two children who are alright. Jules at one point gives an impassioned speech affirming the relationship, but the reason she gives is that they've stuck together. Outside of raising two children, Nic and Jule's relationship's only alleged virtue is a tautology: it is good they are together because they are together. (If you stick to the plot, raising two children together is not going to be enough once the kids graduate, yet it is clear that Jules and Nic will disappoint each other until death do they part.)
The upshot is a major victory for conservatives, on whose behalf Cholodenko has made the following blow for same-sex marriage: lesbians are not like any other happy couple but like any other miserable, melancholic couple who cling to each other out of fear not love. Go Prop 8!