Thursday, July 09, 2015

Untraditional Family Values

If there is a lesson to be taken from "The Kids Are All Right" — and, no, I am not speaking of the movie featuring the rock group The Who — it is that life is complicated.

There are three ways, Roger Ebert wrote five years ago, to interpret the title of "The Kids Are All Right," which premiered on this day in 2010: "Kids in general are all right, these particular kids are all right, and it is all right for lesbians to form a family and raise them."

(Actually, "The Kids Are All Right" got a positive response at the Sundance Film Festival in early July 2010, which accelerated plans to show it commercially. It opened a limited theatrical release on this day; a nationwide release followed three weeks later.)

All three ways are appropriate — often simultaneously — in "The Kids Are All Right." In other words, life really is complicated, and it is hard to imagine a family that could be more complicated than this one (although, in this culture, we are apt to find one that is more complicated before long). Annette Bening and Julianne Moore played married lesbians, both of whom had a child from the same sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) — none of whom seemed to be aware of each other's existence until the offspring (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) got involved, investigating to learn about their biological father.

And they went through all the same awkward moments that are probably familiar to most anonymous sperm donors and their children if they meet.

But there were all sorts of side issues to contend with as well, most of them the kinds of family issues that probably any family, not just those headed by same–sex couples, must address.

For example, Bening was the family conscience, endlessly nagging the children to write thank–you notes.

And what I found intriguing about the movie was how similar the same–sex parents' handling of things was to what I would expect from a traditional heterosexual couple. (In fact, there was a certain sameness to the roles in the relationships. Bening played a doctor, the family bread–winner, clearly the head of the household. Moore was more domestic, a stay–at–home parent, mainly because she never really found her professional niche).

Bening and Moore played a classic modern liberal couple, supportive of their children's desire to seek out their biological father. They approved the concept; in practice, though, they found it troubling — especially since he came to represent a threat to the life they had known.

The father turned out to be a former hippie who dropped out of school and was running his own organic restaurant serving food grown in his organic garden. He vaguely remembered donating some sperm nearly 20 years earlier and agreed to meet his children, apparently more out of curiosity than anything else.

They hit it off — well, he and his daughter more than he and his son — and he was invited over for dinner to meet the moms.

In the course of the dinner, proud mama Bening told Ruffalo about their daughter's recent graduation speech, then suggested that the daughter retrieve the text of the speech from her room and recite it right there on the spot for her father.

If ever there was anything guaranteed to evoke a rolling–of–the–eyes oh–Mom! moment, that was it. Seems gay parents and straight parents are pretty much the same once you get past that bedroom stuff.

Speaking of which, the gay parents apparently shared something else in common with at least some of their straight counterparts. They liked to watch porn while engaging in their preferred sexual activity.

Only Bening and Moore apparently liked watching male homosexuals. That was a little hard to explain — and more than a little difficult for Moore's son to understand.

Anyway, the free–spirited sperm donor learned that Moore was at loose ends professionally and trying to make a career of landscape architecture so he asked her if she would do some work on his home property. She agreed to do so, and that led to yet another complication. While they were going over the landscaping plans, they kind of, you know, fell into bed together.

Bening put two and two together and confronted Moore about the affair — and asked the kind of questions that straight partners undoubtedly would ask each other if the shoes were on the other feet.

As I was saying, life is complicated.

In the end, it seemed to me to come down to none other than the cliched label, "family values." In many ways, they are exactly what you think they are — and, in many ways, they aren't.

These days, both sides of the gay marriage debate would have you believe that same–sex couples are so different in every way from straight couples — when really the only difference is how they make love. In "The Kids Are All Right," the household was headed by a same–sex couple whose experiences probably mirrored those of their straight friends in many ways. Both had issues in their relationships with their significant others. Both had issues with their children — well, after all, the children in this family were teenagers.

"The Kids Are All Right" received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress (Bening), Best Supporting Actor (Ruffalo) and Best Original Screenplay.