Note: This review will contain some major spoilers, as I don’t think I can do it justice without addressing them. But it’s a seven-year-old movie, so….
You’ve been warned.
Critically-praised movies about LGBTQ characters starring A-list actors are something of a rarity, so Lisa Cholodenko’s 2010 film The Kids Are All Right is promising from the start. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore star as Nic and Jules, a lesbian couple raising two teenagers that they conceived via a sperm donor.
The teens, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (a young Josh Hutchinson), are curious about the identity of their sperm donor, and when Joni turns 18, she goes behind her mothers’ back to obtain the information. Enter Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the free-spirited sperm donor who comes riding into the family’s lives on his motorcycle. The teens are eager to get to know him, but his presence exacerbates existing tensions between Nic and Jules. Nic, who is straight-laced and controlled, is uncomfortable with the intrusion in their lives. Jules, who feels neglected in her marriage and who wants to start her own landscaping business after being a stay-at-home mom, welcomes a chance to befriend and work with Paul.
There are a lot of great things to be said about The Kids Are All Right. The cast is excellent, and it’s a joy to see two great actresses playing an established couple. Their relationship feels genuine. And Cholodenko, who also has co-writing credit, seems committed to trying to avoid conventional stereotypes and expectations.
But then the line between nuanced portrayals of sexuality and offensive cliches gets blurred. The chief criticism of The Kids Are All Right is that Jules ultimately has an affair with Paul. My feelings on this plot development are complicated. On the one hand, lesbians falling for men or having sex with men is a stereotype in fiction that a lot of people are understandably tired of seeing, particularly as there is a lot of cultural baggage surrounding the idea that lesbians can be “cured.” On the other hand, I appreciate that this movie makes it clear that Jules is not “turning straight” and that she still loves Nic. The story isn’t about her falling for a man–it’s about her feeling neglected and unsatisfied in her relationship and making a mistake. Paul also experiences his fair share of the consequences for his role in the affair. I also feel that it can be unfair to completely close the door on stories about lesbian-identified women questioning their sexuality, as this is a reality for some people. (Though to be clear, questioning her sexuality is not a big part of Jules’ arc. Her affair with Paul is random and does not seem to have much effect on how she perceives her sexuality.)
But I do question whether it was necessary, from a storytelling perspective, to go in this direction, especially as the movie seems so uninterested in exploring Jules’ feelings about her attraction to Paul. There were other ways that Paul’s presence might increase tensions that wouldn’t invoke as many stereotypes or alienate audiences as much. Ultimately, it’s not that I think the movie handles the storyline poorly. If you’re reading this and thinking that this sounds like an interesting conflict that deals with the complexities of human sexuality, then you’ll probably enjoy The Kids Are All Right. If you’re cringing because you hate the thought of seeing a lesbian character sleep with a man, then there’s a good chance you won’t like it, and that’s understandable. When I talk to fellow writers about avoiding LGBTQ stereotypes in fiction, one thing I try to stress is that sometimes people prefer to avoid reading or watching story lines that they’re tired of, no matter how well done. If you see something done really badly a hundred times, one critically-acclaimed portrayal may not be enough to warm you on it. Story lines like this can be an artistic risk.
Personally, the controversial aspects don’t ruin my appreciation for what I think works in the film. Bening won a Golden Globe for her performance, a win that I feel was deserved. The question of whether it’s a good LGBTQ movie is a more difficult, subjective question to answer. And while this may seem like a cop-out, my only opinion is that people have to decide that for themselves.