If You Can’t Be Good, Be Careful: Or; Why Is It So Hard To Make Lesbian Movies?

July 26, 2010, 1:12 pm

If you want to read the glowing review of Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbian family flick The Kids Are Alright go to A.O. Scott (New York Times, July 8 2010). Michelle Solomon, in The Guardian (July 23 2010), is slightly more reserved, dubbing it a “relationship movie” and noting that the high-profile actresses will allow it to “[avoid] being pigeonholed as a ‘gay movie.’” (Thank god for this, that’s what I say.) If you want to read the intelligent review by a queer scholar, that will actually get into it why this is a lesbian movie, go here for Jack Halberstam’s “The Kids Aren’t Alright” (bullybloggers July 15, 2010).

My review follows: it is a terrible, awful, embarrassing, piece of crap film. I could have had a better time had I saved $11.00 ($22.00 + dinner for two actually); spent the same two hours reviewing some critical, and hideous, months in my own life; and then had a friendly dinner with my companion where we reviewed vivid memories of my own bad decisions and personality flaws in action.
For those of you who would rather hear about the film, Halberstam (who has what I consider to be an admirably high tolerance, and a keen intelligence, for schlocky pop culture) provides a concise plot summary to anchor the analysis:
“The Kids Are Alright” is a soul-crushing depiction of long-term relationships, lesbian parenting and mid-life crisis. Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are mushed into one category by their kids Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska) who call them “moms” or “the moms.” The moms have merged into one maternal entity and although they have distinct personalities, their parenting function is depicted as one amorphous smothering gesture after another. The kids suffer through the over-parenting but crisis ensues when Laser decides to track down his sperm donor dad, Paul, played by Mark Ruffalo. Once Paul rides onto the scene on his classic black BMW motorcycle, bearing organic veggies and good wine, the cracks in the façade of lesbian domesticity appear and a rather predictable cycle of betrayal, infidelity and domestic upheaval begins.

I’m clicking “like” on this one, and the only place I would disagree with the review is that whereas Halberstam describes Jules as “dowdy” further down, that didn’t bother me. Face it, at this age many of us are fighting dowdy. It did bother me that Jules was dorky, and I thought if she asked one of the other characters if s/he wanted to “process” something one more time I was going to scream.

Like the son Laser, who periodically asks questions that no one answers, I often needed more information, despite the fact that I am a practicing lesbian, hung my shingle in 1975, and have been in practice continuously since then. If Jules had a gardening business, why did no one take the opportunity to make a leering joke about mowing the lawn? Why did the “Moms” watch gay male porn — and porn from the 1970s no less? Is Annette Bening’s vulva located somewhere around her navel, as it appeared in the excruciating rug-munching scene? Why did Jules insult, and then fire, the Mexican gardener (who seemed handsome and sweet) instead of having an affair with him? How did Paul manage a restaurant if he was as stupid and disorganized as he seemed? How do heterosexuals keep from getting concussions from smacking into the walls and furniture? Should heterosexual adolescents be counseled to wear helmets during sex? Why is Julianne Moore in so many gay movies? Why did Nic think that her son skateboarding — without a helmet — was less dangerous than her daughter riding a motorcycle with a helmet? Should I quit my day job as a tenured professor and make myself available as a Hollywood sex coach/stunt dyke in case bad lesbian movies really take off?
You have time to make lists like this when a movie is really, really bad. So instead of reviewing “The Kids Are Alright,” I would like to suggest a few plot changes that would have made it better.
1. If Paul, the sperm donor, had been gay. Then, when he started boffing Jules, they could have done a whole thing about why a gay man and a gay woman might find themselves attracted to each other, and avoided the un-tense tension of whether Jules had joined the other team. What would have made this even better is if Paul had had a boyfriend who didn’t want children and had been adamantly opposed to Paul making contact with the kids, but Paul went behind his back to do it.
2. If Paul, the sperm donor, had been better looking and/or an interesting person. Sorry, I think Mark Ruffalo seemed abnormally physically gross. Fortunately, I had a local informant who has played for both teams, and she explained to me that heterosexual women are attracted to men who look dirty, smelly and ungroomed; and who say almost nothing when they speak. This piece of information is what twigged me to the fact that this was not really a “lesbian movie.”
3. If Nic and Jules had been “Nick” and “Julie.” Is there anyone but me who thinks this originally came in to the studio as a treatment about a heterosexual couple and the sperm donor, and Cholodenko made it about lesbians to get it produced? What would have been even better would have been if Paul had been gay, and Paul and Nick had an affair! Now we are getting somewhere.
4. If Paul were transsexual, and had only donated sperm to finance the transition to a life as Paula. At sixty dollars a pop this would have taken a while, but added to a small inheritance it might have worked. What would have then been cool is if Paula was a lesbian, and had affairs with both Nic and Jules, and Paula knew where everyone’s vulva was, and could mow the lawn like nobody’s business, and after the awkward moment of truth where the affairs were revealed Nic and Jules agreed this was a good arrangement because she had revitalized their sex life, and the kidz ended up banging their heads against the wall because all their stupidity and brainless interference with their parents’ lives had only given them a third mom after all.
4. If Paul had not agreed to meet the kids, but actually was their neighbor, and had been part of their lives,
and of the household, all along, and no one found this out until the end when Laser needed a liver transplant after falling off his skateboard.
Here is where I have to ask you: in what legal world would a sperm bank take a verbal assent over the telephone from the sperm donor as a go-ahead to release contact information to the children? But putting that aside, what would have been cool about this is that it would have put the question front and center: why does it matter to know who your father is? And under what conditions do intimate bonds form between adults, and adults and children, that surpass the conventions toward which we are all encouraged to gravitate? (I just threw in the liver transplant thing for fun.)
5. If Nick and Jules had been gay men, and Jules was living with HIV, and the children went looking for their bio-mom and she turned out to be a closeted lesbian running for governor of California on a family values platform and had to decide whether to sue the Dadz for custody; kill the children to keep them quiet and continue with her life as a conservative; or have a change of heart, convert the Tea Party to a full GLBT rights platform; then become the first woman president of the United States and cause Sarah Palin to have a complete aneurysm. Do I have to tell you that we are now cooking with gas?
Please feel free to add your own plot suggestions in the comments section, or get on with your day, whichever seems more appropriate.
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