Scene It: Joni Mitchell and the Kids Are All Right

The Kids Are All Right's principal ensemble; image courtesy of filmschoolrejects.com

Last night was must-see TV, at least at my house. Having followed former NBC executive Jeff Zucker’s stupefying programming decisions, further driven home after reading Bill Carter’s The War For Late Night, it’s a wonder the network even has its Thursday night comedy line-up. I sat through Perfect Couples‘ cold open and shaved my legs during The Office, but Community and the triumphant mid-season return of Parks and Recreation did not disappoint. But since I refuse to watch Outsourced or Leno but planned to stay up for the Dismemberment Plan performance on Fallon (seriously, music booker Jonathan Cohen is turning it out), I needed something to occupy my time. I stumbled on the chords to “Jane Says” and attempted to untangle a necklace. I also watched Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, after Dana Stevens and virtually everyone else told me to see it. Also, Cholodenko’s comments during the Hollywood Reporter directors’ roundtable won me over and Annette Bening’s recent Golden Globe win reminded me of her cerebral sex appeal. Plus I’ll literally see any movie Mark Ruffalo is in.

I was more than a little skeptical of this movie during its theatrical run. The possibility of a dalliance between a lesbian and her heterosexual male sperm donor made me grimace a bit. My principal concern was something Amanda Klein touched on with in part of a tweet that stated “lesbians really love getting pounded by straight dudes.” To my surprise, the affair between Julianne Moore and Ruffalo’s characters didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. The affair certainly isn’t the focus of the movie, which breezes through it to devote considerable time to the aftermath. Moore’s Jules discusses human sexuality’s fluid nature in an earlier scene. Yes, this is rather obvious foreshadowing. But frankly, I’ve known a few lesbians who’ve been involved with men in various capacities. It didn’t make them any less queer.

This commitment to representing lesbians as complex beings because of and apart from their sexuality was reflected in the performances. Bening and Moore very much registered as a couple to me. They’re possibly the sort of couple where one partner was queer long before she found the other, who may have discovered her lesbian identity through this relationship. The movie handled the affair as an indiscretion and lapse of judgment between two aimless people who briefly take solace in approaching middle age as one party’s daughter is heading off to college and the other is just getting to know the kids he helped create. Furthermore, I thought the exploration of lesbian partners who shared the experience of child-bearing fascinating, especially when they have to confront parenting differences in relation to which child they gave birth to. Seriously, I want to read more about this.

However, The Kids was merely all right. There’s a lot to recommend. The ensemble is fantastic (recognition should also go to Mia Wasikowska, who I loved in the first season of In Treatment and is great as older daughterJoni). Music supervisor Liza Richardson does an exceptional job locating the songs these characters would identify with (Joni would totally throw the Knife on while loafing in her room). The production design is phenomenal. The homes immediately resonate as the dwelling places where upper-middle-class bougie southern Californians. Thus Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg’s script, which my partner had an allergic reaction to, also registers. I don’t necessarily like these people, but I buy them. Every clipped line or wine ovation Bening delivers as breadwinner doctor Nic strikes the right balance between surreptitious and well-mannered. Likewise, every time Julianne Moore says “man,” it seems like a joint is being passed just out of frame. And when the couple interrogate their son Laser (Josh Hutcherson, playing a role with a name only ex-hippie types would come up with) about their suspicion that he’s gay or goad their children into sharing their feelings, the premium they place on unfiltered self-expression scans as the tactics of people who use phrases like “higher self” and spend thousands of dollars and hours in therapy. While I’m not enamored with the efforts, I certainly appreciate their sensitive realization.

My biggest problem with the movie was exposition. I know that the movie was made for a pittance and under a truncated shooting schedule, but I would have appreciated ten more minutes of set-up. Why are Jules and Nic in a rut? Why does Ruffalo’s Paul care about being a father after forgetting that he donated his specimen when he was 19 and broke? Why is Laser’s friend peeing on cats? Who exactly is Paul’s girlfriend Tanya (played by Yaya DaCosta, who should have won the third cycle of America’s Next Top Model but is doing okay by herself as a working actress, particularly in John Sayles’ Honeydripper)? This is drawn together too hastily for me, especially given the care put into the rest of the movie.

However, the scene that’s the center of the movie for me is Nic impromptu performance of a verse from Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want” at a dinner at Paul’s house. When perusing his record collection she discovers, after weeks of suspicion about him and his proximity to her partner, that they’re both fans. This part didn’t surprise me, nor did the reveal that Wasikowska’s character is named after her (seriously, poll a sample of late boomer or early Gen Xer women — 4 out of 5 probably love Mitchell, especially if your pool resides in California). I could be snarky and say that it would be better if they dug a little deeper than track one of the canonical Blue. What, no love for The Hissing of Summer Lawns? But Blue captured the zeitgeist and lives on across generations for a reason. It’s a devastating record about love curdled by deception and human error.

Joni, Joanna -- thus the circle game continues; image courtesy of spinner.com

It totally works here, bolstered by Bening’s disarming performance. The camera lingers on Nic’s ostensibly private reverie. It’s a purposely awkward but deeply informative scene. Nic might be embarrassing her kids but she’s ultimately singing to herself. Jules and Paul watch, perhaps only slightly aware of how deeply affected she is by what’s going on. Following her performance, she will walk into Paul’s bathroom and have the truth she already knows confirmed for her. But this scene gives you insight into her interiority and why she’ll remain committed to her family after the fallout. It’s a subtle, powerful moment that demonstrates what the movie is and what it could be.

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3 comments

  1. carrietj

    Here’s my problem with the plot arc: because they didn’t make Jules and Nic’s problems particular to them, and because narratives about lesbian couples are so very rare in mainstream popular culture, this all feels very universalized. So instead of it feeling like Jules sleeping with a dude was about her in particular, it still feels to me like a “you girls just need a deep dicking” story.

    • Alyx Vesey

      Well, maybe just one of “you girls”. I don’t think Nic has or ever had any use for deep dicking. While I was afraid they’d make her some sort of antagonist (or at least trudge up the stereotype of the humorless lesbian), I was happy to have her rendered as completely uncharmed by Paul, but not–ugh, you know–a man hater. ‘Cause frankly, as someone who thinks Mark Ruffalo is Mr. Sexypants, I thought it was ridiculous how every woman fawned all over Paul, who was kind of boring to me. In the ensemble, Nic ostensibly serves as the closest proximity to a protagonist and I liked that if we’re forced to side with anyone, it has to be her. If only she could seem like a complex sexual being instead of an enforcer of lesbian bed death.

      As a tangent, I feel more than a little bit weird about how Bening referred to Moore as her partner in her Golden Globes acceptance speech. While I don’t doubt their commitment to the roles, it seems in poor taste to kiss your co-star in front of Jane Lynch and her wife and then thank Warren Beatty.

      But your point gets at exactly what I think the movie is lacking: exposition. You’re absolutely right — their problems aren’t particular to them. They’re pretty stock issues that seem to show up in every movie about people who’ve been married for a while. We get that story of how Nic and Jules met, but we don’t know how they identify as lesbians. Not that I need a coming out story (I’m actually really glad the movie didn’t have the scene where the two leads talk about “when they knew”), but it seemed possible to me that Jules identified as straight prior to getting involved Nic (reminds me of Tina/Bette). It’s incredibly jarring how quickly Jules and Paul have sex. Though I was pleasantly surprised that the affair peters out after a few encounters, and like that Jules is like “ugh, what am I doing? I’m gay–get away from me,” I still have no understanding of why they got together in the first place. I seriously feel like ten minutes of set-up are missing from this movie.

  2. Pingback: Songs for Amy Foster: 40 Years of Joni Mitchell’s Blue | Canonball

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