Movie Review: The Kids Are All Right

The Kids Are All Right (2010), directed by Lisa Cholodenko, starring Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mark Rufallo

I did not like the movie The Kids Are All Right, not at all. Neither did my wife. And while I don’t usually review movies, and, moreover, am not easily offended (really! I’m not!), I feel moved to tell you why.

But first, I want to be clear about something that is NOT why I didn’t like this movie. Unlike many of my straight women friends, who, sweetly and supportively, were terribly offended that one of the lesbian moms in the movie has an affair with a man (“I refused to watch it as soon as I heard she slept with a man! As if!” “What an offensive stereotype, that lesbians really just want to sleep with men!” And so on.) — I was not at all offended by this turn of events. Indeed, this was one of the few things I actually liked about the movie — that it treated sexuality as somewhat liquid; that it allowed a woman who identifies as a lesbian to have really hot sex with a really hot guy and at the end of the day still want to be married to her wife. All political correctness aside, I think that’s just real, and I actually liked it a lot. Also, Mark Rufallo is totally hot, isn’t he? And Julianne Moore? I mean, I have a gay male friend who has an understanding with his boyfriend that if he ever has an opportunity to sleep with Julianne Moore — well, ‘nuf said. So, yeah, right? What’s not to love?

So, just for the record, the totally hot lesbian-on-boy sex did not offend me. Here is what did:

1. Assuming this story is set in 2009/2010, the two children of the lesbian couple, who are eighteen and fifteen years old, were conceived in the early 1990’s. Now I don’t know if you remember the early 1990’s, but here are a few salient pieces of information: There was no internet. There were no search engines. There were no sperm banks with websites. If you were a lesbian couple thinking about conceiving a child through anonymous donor insemination in the early 1990’s, you could not Google “anonymous donor insemination” and come up with a wide array of sperm banks, including ones with “yes” donors — that is, donors who are anonymous, but willing to be known at some point, such as when the child reaches the age of eighteen. Indeed, finding any anonymous donor sperm at all was a little bit of a feat in the early 1990’s. I know this for a fact because, in 1995/96, when my wife and I were seeking anonymous donor sperm with which to conceive a child, these basic facts were still true. So, if a lesbian couple in the early 1990’s were seeking a “yes” donor — as opposed to a truly anonymous sperm donor — they would have had to do a good deal of research. It would not have been easy. They would have had to go out of their way to find such sperm, and if they did go out of their way, it would only be because they really valued having a “knowable” donor.

This of course makes the entire premise of the movie absurd: no lesbian couple who has gone out of their way to find a “yes” donor would then entirely fail to ever consider the possibility that their children might actually want to know who their father is, or talk to their children about what that might mean for their family if they did. It is highly unlikely that a lesbian couple who had actively sought out a “yes” donor would be shocked — shocked, I tell you — not to mention offended and threatened, when their children actually took advantage of the knowability of their donor.

Now, this might seem like a small thing to most of you. A minor oversight for the sake of the plot. Lighten up, Marta. It’s just sperm. Right? But no, it’s not — and that’s the whole premise of the movie, right? That, as it turns out, it’s not just sperm. And those of us who have actually created families through donor insemination — and, for that matter, through adoption — have given a whole fucking lot of thought to what it means that our children have other parents. We have lived with both the awesomeness and the heartbreak of what it means for our children to have other parents who they may or may not know; of what it means, for some of us, to be parents to children with whom we share no genes; of what it means to create families in a brave new world where we are first-generation cartographers. To have all of what has been painful and profound and beautiful and heartbreaking about all that simply glossed over, as though the writers of this movie couldn’t be bothered to do just a little basic research, or to just talk to a real live lesbian family — well, that kinda pissed me off. Just for starters.

2. The hot lesbian-on-boy sex? Totally down with that. The hot lesbian-on-boy sex juxtaposed, in a matter of minutes, with a slapstick sex scene between the two lesbians — the only lesbian sex scene in the entire movie, in fact — in which the lesbians apparently have no fucking idea how to have sex? That’s offensive.

Now before you get all worked up, I’ve heard all the defenses. It subverts our voyeuristic expectations of hot girl-on-girl sex! NO SKIN AT ALL! And married sex does sometimes get boring! And isn’t it awesome that it’s boring LESBIAN married sex?

In a word: No. It is an offensive stereotype that lesbians don’t really know how to have sex; that lesbians don’t, in fact, really have sex at all, because, you know, without a penis it’s not really sex. It’s also an offensive stereotype that lesbians really just need a good lay — with, of course, a penis involved — and everything will become clear. Now, I’m down with subverting the neat little boxes into which we tend to put sexuality. The fluid nature of sexuality, for many of us, does not always lend itself to the certainties that our political world often requires of us. So while the stereotype that lesbians just need a good fuck, is, of course, offensive, I did not think that this movie particularly catered to that stereotype. But that slapstick sex scene between Juliane Moore and Annette Bening? That seemed to me to really get at the heart of lesbians-don’t-really-know-how-to-have-sex. That it was juxtaposed so quickly with the hot het sex scene — in which Julianne Moore and Mark Rufallo most certainly know how to have sex — made it all the more offensive.

And don’t get me wrong — I’ve been in a relationship with my wife for twenty-three years. I know all about the ebbs and flows of married sex. But the ebbs of married sex are about ruts, about frequency, about going-through-the-motions. They are not, in my experience, about the comic relief of people who, after decades together, don’t really have any idea about how to have sex in the first place. (And for the record: I was not offended by the gay male porn. Not at all. That’s not what I’m getting at, just for the record. My philosophy is whatever floats your boat, and I totally get thinking gay men are hot — because, well, they ARE — but the problem is, nothing was really floating these women’s boats. Not even potentially floating their boats. It just felt like slapstick comic relief.)

In the context of all those swirling stereotypes, there needed to be a really fucking hot lesbian sex scene. And it would not have strained credulity at all, it seems to me, to make one happen. Even in the midst of all that heartbreak, all that betrayal (especially in that context) — it seems entirely likely that Annette and Julianne might have gone at it in a way that made it quite clear that they do, indeed, know how to have sex.

3. I only saw this movie once, but as far as I can remember, there were exactly two people of color in the entire movie. One is the total babe of an Afro-centric hottie who old Rufallo is fucking — until, that is, he decides that he wants to settle down and have a family. And then, of course, he has to break up with her, because, I guess, Afro-centric hotties who like fucking aren’t really great settling-down-and-having-a-family-with babes. The other character of color is the Hispanic gardener, played mostly for slapstick laughs, but also to show that liberal white middle class people? They can be a tiny bit racist! But then? Then they feel really bad about it!

So yeah, as racist stereotypes? It kind of sucked to be both of those characters too.

4. And then, finally, there was the sweeping number of issues — real life issues, for some of us, as it turns out — that this movie tried to treat, all in two hours! In a dramedy! There’s boring married sex. There’s the fluidity of sexuality. There’s betrayal and heartbreak and maybe forgiveness. There’s kids conceived through donor gametes. Who want to know their dad. Except he’s not really their dad! Or is he? There’s the jealous mom. There’s the career-driven, neurotic mom, and the flighty, can’t-figure-herself-out mom. There’s kids growing up and acting out (motorcycles! dare-devil stunts! drugs, even!) and going off to college. And then, after all those laughs — because really, all those issues? Like, really living them? That’s a laugh-a-minute! — after all those laughs, there’s the two moms — HOLDING HANDS! And awwwww — isn’t that sweet?

Like I said, I did not love this movie.

How ’bout you? (For what it’s worth, most of my friends loved it, so I promise I won’t be offended. Leave me a comment and let me know what you thought.)

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About Marta Rose

I am a writer and a homemaker living in Philadelphia with my wife Julie and our children, Trixie and Micah.
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9 Responses to Movie Review: The Kids Are All Right

  1. Esther says:

    I’m so glad to hear you didn’t love it. I was offended by the trailer, for reasons that weren’t clear to me, and despite much urging from friends, did not see it. I am very happy to believe my negative reaction to the trailer was because I sensed all the objectionable features that your review describes.

    And I would love some good hot lesbian sex. Milk and Brokeback Mountain had lovely scenes of gay sex that this hetero found very moving. Where’s the lesbian equivalent?

    Keep ’em coming!

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  3. Kate Haas says:

    Well, gosh, Marta. None of these criticisms even occurred to me! I was so thrilled to be a) out of the house with a friend; b) at night; c) at the movies; d) (the cheap movie theater!); e) drinking wine and eating chocolate; f) seeing something so much more intelligent than the last movie I saw – which I am too embarrassed even to admit I went to; that g) I simply enjoyed the whole thing, although; h) yeah, if a movie’s going to take me out of my daily reality anyway, why not throw in the hot lesbian sex I was so anticipating?

    However, I see where you’re coming from with all your points. And you have clearly put a lot more thought into this than I did!

  4. Lay Nerd says:

    Your first criticism sounds like the movie got some history wrong, and the error matters a lot. Am I reading you right? If yes, then you’ve got an important point, albeit one you’ll probably have to make about a lot of movies, as they get that stuff wrong all the time. (A critic on Slate had a similar issue with The Social Network; the basic premise, alienated Jew defies the ruling Hahvahd WASPs, made *no sense* in the Harvard of Zuckerberg’s day; that world had already passed on.)

    As to the offensive theme of lesbian sexual incompetence, let me ask: If something is seriously amiss in their relationship, would a cluelessness in their lovemaking attempts be a reasonable symbol or indication of it? I’m not trying to minimize your criticism; I think I’d’ve taken similar offense had I seen the movie. But I’m trying to understand how the scene might make sense.

  5. cynthia dennis says:

    Hi Marta,
    I have not seem this movie yet but thoroughly enjoyed your review. I totally agree with you – especially on the points about “historical accuracy”! It just so happens I was trying to get pregnant during the early 90’s and remember well how we had to purchase (by snail mail) the donor catalogs from the exactly 3 sperm banks in the entire country that we could find which would even do business with an unmarried woman/couple. And I do NOT remember any of them having “known” donors at that time. I really hate it when film makers do not bother to get at least close to reality if they set their films in a certain time and/or place!
    Oh, and the treatment of the lesbian sex scene (right after the steamy lesbian-on-boy scene) is a deal killer for me, as well. I will probably still see this film at some point but am really glad I read your review first. Now I think I will wait until I can see it on cable for free. Thanks for saving me and my wife few bucks.
    Cheers!

  6. CMrok93 says:

    Without any humor in the story, this would be a very sad story about a destructive mix of personalities causing havoc in a family. But the film does have a lot of humor in it.

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  8. Me says:

    Not your intention, but your review prompts me to think I should see the movie. So much to do, so little time.

  9. Meena Mehta says:

    I just happened to catch this on HBO the other night and you are right on..frankly the part about having sex with a man and the gay porn felt the most real to me. I worked in a video store for a long time and I was surprised the first time a lesbian couple took out gay porn but by the hundredth time, I barely blinked an eye. I totally disliked both main characters and their relationship seemed really brittle before the introduction of the Mark Ruffalo character. But making the scene between Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo hot made it also seem normative..it was hot because it is natural and normal is what the filmmaker seemed to be telling me..sex between two women is comical and slap-sticky because it is not really sex..not like het sex. And did I mention that I really disliked both women..?

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