Alex: At first I was annoyed by Annette Bening’s performance. She seemed to be taking refuge in neurotic behavior. But then I had an epiphany: The Kids Are All Right — and Annette’s performance in it — are a response to American Beauty.
Ph.D. diss, here I come.
This is a Problems of Affluent White People movie, to be sure, and that’s the point. It reapplies all the standard premises of the genre — middle-aged infidelity, sexually curious teenagers, and even the tracking down of the biological parent thing — to a family whose nucleus is a gay couple.
So the gay characters are no longer the funny dudes next door or the closet case who short-circuits, as in AB. Here the gay characters are our heroes, and if characters in this movie are struggling with their sexuality it’s due to the expectations that go along with being straight (or at least having a straight affair).
The teenage son here is an inversion of the Wes Bentley character in AB. He’s not dark and mysterious and sexual — he’s not even very interesting. He’s not anything yet. When his moms ask him if he’s gay, interestingly, he’s taken aback but he never actually answers their question. And the movie never answers it either.
And so Annette Bening’s presence and performance — controlling, withdrawn, bitter, boozing — remind us of her American Beauty schtick, with one huge difference: where AB is content to let her be a far-gone castrating bitch, The Kids Are All Right gives us access to her heartbreak. I’m thinking of the scene when she discovers evidence of her wife’s affair with Mark Ruffalo then has to return to all of them at the dinner table. It’s an ingeniously directed moment.
I’ve only seen one other movie by Lisa Cholodenko: her acclaimed first feature, High Art, which I remember as unbearably serious. It’s nice to see her having so much fun and being so subversive.
Aaron: Well, I would say this was also unbearably serious – but also unbearably self-important and tired. Nothing in this film is really new, aside from the fact that it’s two women being married rather than a man and a woman. I guess there’s no reason a gay movie has to be particularly gay (lots of gays live pretty pedestrian lives, I know), but I was upset that the relationship Bening and Moore have is pretty traditionally straight… and also pretty banal when it comes to how lesbians are portrayed in pop culture.
I agree with you that the dinner-table scene is very well done, but it’s also the best scene in the film. It’s also the only moment when Bening is not a horrible fucking cunt to her wife or her kids (even though the scene is really about her control of the family). She is the domineering father from hundreds of family dramas we’ve seen over the years. She drinks a lot and works a lot and has no time for her wife or her kids. She micromanages everything in an annoying way. If I was Moore, I would cheat on her too… well, I’d divorce her…
Moore is the totally typical broken wife. She hates that she can’t get love from her partner, so she seeks it out in the world. Then there’s the worst L-Word-esque thing where she cheats on her wife with a man – as if all lesbians are somewhere on a fence where they might be bi rather than totally lesbian (this is part of the reason why The L Word got particularly tired in the second season. All women were bi. That’s dumb.). Why wouldn’t the lesbian woman have an affair with another lesbian? (This brings up that weird thing with the women watching hetero porn… which was never really discussed.)
I think it’s wonderful that gay women can have normal relationships with their partners “as if they were straight”, but I don’t know why they should fall into such trite stereotypes. If this same film had a man and woman couple in it, it would be horribly dull (like American Beauty).
I appreciate your thoughts about American Beauty, Alex, and I had not considered that, but I really don’t think that’s a good movie. Maybe I don’t like movies about rich white people. Maybe I don’t like white people. Isn’t American Beauty really about the kids as much as it’s about Spacey’s character? This movie really isn’t about the kids at all. They don’t change or grow and really just serve as the catalyst for bringing in Ruffalo, no? It’s not really about their sexuality. (I thought that moment with the mother talking to the son about sex was a throw-away…)
As cringe-worthy as American Beauty was at times (like Wes Bently extolling the virtues of beauty, while watching a video of a plastic bag in the wind), I thought it tried to have a lot more depth. At least Bentley thought about stuff. The kids here don’t really do anything.