When Lisa Cholodenko’s comedy drama The Kids Are All Right blew through the Sundance Film Festival and into American multiplexes this summer, US film critics fell over themselves to heap praise on it. The Village Voice branded it “a heartfelt poster for family values” and Entertainment Weekly gushed that “this pitch-perfect movie charms audiences into a state of enlightenment”.
Enlightenment and family values? That’s a heady combination that, trust us, you really need to see, both to believe and to embrace as a film in which being gay and married is just an established social fact. The film centres on a long-married lesbian couple in Southern California – Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) – whose 18-year-old daughter (Mia Wasikowska) and 15-year-old son (Josh Hutcherson) track down the anonymous sperm donor who fathered them both. When their quest digs up Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a serial shagger with his own organic restaurant, it chucks the proverbial spanner into everyone’s lives.
The Kids Are All Right sets its stall out with a nuclear family that could have been designed for some Christian-channel sitcom, bar the fact that its two heads of household are lesbians. But in being topical while having no political agenda, it leads by example; by depicting with ease and honesty a warm, funny, devoted, loving family who are also a bit of a mess, it makes the most powerful political statement of all.
It also features spicy sex of both gay and straight varieties, but there’s no homophobic hysteria to contend with, nor does the film get into discussions about sexual identity or LGBT issues. There are plenty of queer filmmakers who can and do fly the ideology flag, but Cholodenko never set out to be one of them. A dyed-in-the-wool indie filmmaker (her previous two films are 1998’s High Art and 2002’s Laurel Canyon), 46-year-old Cholodenko (whose own partner is Wendy Melvoin, one-time member of Prince’s band The Revolution) describes herself as “not an overly political person… I just see these as human rights issues. This story is meant to be an exploration about what all families face: the anxiety, comedy, pain and pathos of watching your family shape-shift on you.”
Cholodenko and Melvoin started their own family using an anonymous sperm donor, so she’s mining a deeply personal vein in her third film, which she co-wrote with Stuart Blumberg and was originally set to direct back in 2005. Bumping into the pitfalls typically faced by indie films (financiers backing out, directors becoming pregnant as happened to Cholodenko), it ended up being postponed, but her long-term producing partner thinks it’s all worked out for the best. “It was a darker script back then,” says Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, who also produced Mysterious Skin. “It dealt much more with the pathos of the individual characters but ultimately we wanted to highlight the depth of the relationship between Jules and Nic.”
That makes perfect sense in a movie so fiercely committed to the idea of marriage. Paul also evolved. In early drafts, he was malicious in the way he approached sexual conquests, and became the story’s villain for deliberately undermining the family by sleeping with Jules. In the version that Cholodenko ended up shooting, their affair is still the catalyst for most of the drama but, says Levy-Hinte, “now it puts more of the burden on Jules. She wasn’t manipulated into having sex with Paul, and he’s not so easily dismissible as an unsavoury character. By putting the focus on Jules, it puts the focus on Jules and Nic.”
Some corners of the US gay community have reacted with hostility to this angle, arguing that it plays into stereotypes and some people’s insulting belief that what all lesbians secretly crave is a bit of cock. Personally, Cholodenko is of the opinion that sexual identity is fluid but the more salient point is that she set out to create characters as flawed and selfish as people are in real life. They betray each other like real people, and they deal with the fallout like real people.
Even though she crafted her script to appeal to the widest possible audience, every studio in Hollywood turned The Kids Are All Right down. That left Cholodenko and her partners to walk the trickier independent-financing route, which meant the budget was ridiculously tight. Occasionally, their backers would send notes asking for a cosier, group-hug ending in which the straight man didn’t end up marginalised – but “people get hurt, that’s life.” After its splashy Sundance debut, studios were queueing up to buy the film for release, with Focus Features the eventual victor.
In a nation where Republicans, Tea Partiers and religious fundamentalists use the prospect of gay marriage to panic their supporters, the quiet effectiveness of The Kids Are All Right lies in making a hot-button topic a non-issue. The conservative family-values crowd were never going to embrace The Kids Are All Right, but it could end up packing a bigger punch in another medium, as negotiations are underway for a spin-off TV series. Sure, parents can turn the channel – but their gay sons and daughters will be able to watch it right under their noses. The kids will be alright.