“The Kids Are Alright”: A Special Mother’s Day Article
Warning: The following article contains spoilers!
Oh Hollywood! You are a strange beast! Nowadays, lots of people rag on you for your apparent elitism and smugness. But, regardless of that, your creativity is undeniable. So is your ability to take humanity’s pulse and properly read its chart. Sometimes you do so at the level of governments and nations or entire civilizations. But, today, let’s scale back to the level of the family unit. Specifically, let’s look at the role of moms in Hollywood. Room…Steel Magnolias…Tully…Lady Bird…Stepmom…Terms of Endearment…so many choices/options. This Mother’s Day let’s focus on a film with two moms—The Kids Are Alright (2010).
The Kids Are Alright was somewhat progressive for its time. The movie was released in 2010—not the deep past by any stretch of the imagination. But a lot has changed in the past 13 years. At the time The Kids Are Alright was released the Supreme Court decision federally legalizing same-sex marriage had not yet been reached. That wasn’t until June 2015.
In a 1997 episode of Ellen entitled “The Puppy Episode,” the titular comedian (Ellen DeGeneres) comes out. Films like Chasing Amy (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001) touch upon lesbianism, but The Kids Are Alright was one of the first mainstream films to depict a married same-sex couple raising teenage children.
Dr. Nicole ‘Nic’ Allgood (Annette Benning) and her spouse Jules (Julianne Moore) live in Los Angeles. Nic works as an OB/GYN specialist, while Jules, more of a free spirit, had a former career but now owns a landscaping business. Each gave birth to a different child, using the same sperm donor. Nic’s biological child is Joni (Mia Wasikowska)—named for famous singer Joni Mitchell. Joni is about to head off to college. Jules’s 15-year-old, biological son is Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Laser is curious who his biological father is. Nic and Jules are initially reluctant but then they give way, and so Joni- 18-years old- contacts the sperm bank. It is revealed that Paul Hatfield (Mark Ruffalo)- a bohemian, farm-to-table restaurant owner- was the sperm donor.
Paul meets the family. He takes a liking to them, and he enjoys spending time bonding with his biological children. He also connects with Jules (whom he hires to landscape his backyard). Nic is the only one who isn’t pleased, and especially doesn’t appreciate all the time Jules spends with Paul. Despite Jules’ orientation, she has a sexual affair with Paul. Not only does this threaten Paul’s newfound relationship with his biological children, but it also threatens Nic and Jules’ marriage and their relationship with Laser and Joni.
Director Lisa Cholondenko wrote the screenplay with Stuart Blumberg, using many of her own real-life experiences as lesbian for the story. Gary Gilbert, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Celine Rattray, Jordan Horowitz, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Philippe Hellman, and Joel Newton were its producers. Igor Jadue-Lillo was the cinematographer. Carter Burwell provided the music, and Jeffrey M. Werner was the film’s editor. Focus Features distributed the movie.
The film’s title focuses on the children’s status, and that was a smart move on the part of the film’s producers. A lot of discourse in psychological and sociological fields challenge any deviation from the traditional mother-father-child family model. Can children grow up socially and psychologically healthy if they don’t have guidance from both a male and female parent? Yes. The influence needs to come from somewhere though. It may be a parent, or it may not be. If the guidance is wholesome, consistent, and abuse/neglect-free, that’s what matters. No guidance from either a mother and/or father figure, though, is a serious issue.
For instance, one type of activity dads usually provide is “rough and tumble play”—which helps kids feel comfortable and secure in their own skin. Another name for “rough and tumble play” is “dog-wrestling” …getting on the floor and playfully grappling. It’s a social “dance” of sorts. Kids test limits and learn to establish and respect boundaries. My baby-boomer father has four brothers. You can rest assured they did lots of “dog wrestling.” One quite-comical scene with “dog wrestling” in the beginning of the film occurs.
Nic and Jules have a relationship that closely mirrors that of many heterosexual marriages/nuclear families. One person (Nic) is the breadwinner and the other (Jules) is the homemaker. As an aside, this is not a value-laden observation. In some families, there’s a breadwinner and homemaker. In some families, both parents work. One model isn’t necessarily better or worse than the other (so long as things work out okay).
Nic experiences far more negative emotions than Jules. She is a recovering alcoholic (she no longer drinks), but the stress that might have fueled her drinking in the first place amplifies when Paul enters their lives. Small changes annoy Nic (e.g., Jules adopts Paul’s method of composting). More serious changes annoy her as well. In one scene, she scolds Joni for riding home on a motorcycle with Paul. She then scolds Paul for responding dismissively to her (Nic). Nic- flabbergasted- cites her experiences as a physician (having seen many motorcycle accidents in the ER) as a valid reason for her concern (Joni is also her biological daughter, so that’s of course a valid reason for concern all on its own). She then discovers that her intuitions about Jules and Paul were correct.
The more serious revelation that Jules and Paul have been sexually intimate adds a layer of complexity to the film. The audience may simply conclude that Jules is bisexual. However, that is not the reason she gives when Nic confronts her. Jules expresses that she felt undesired and unappreciated. One point to derive here is that issues of marital rockiness, infidelity, and betrayal obviously transcend orientation. Nic would’ve been just as angry and heartbroken if Jules had been with another woman. The reality that Jules dallied with the children’s sperm donor (someone who did not contribute to any actual child-rearing) especially upsets Nic. In the film’s final reel, Nic punctuates this anger towards Paul: “If you really want a family so bad, go start your own!”
The film primarily focuses on motherhood (motherhood doubled, in this case). Both Nic and Jules give birth, and both raise their children well. Motherhood is certainly a special and unique enterprise. Regardless of what fathers may or may not want to experience, mothers are obviously the only ones who physically can be pregnant, give birth, and breastfeed. Those capacities certainly provide them with a more direct, intimate bonding experience than their male counterparts. This is not a pejorative statement against fathers. Most fathers deeply love their children. But as far as the more specific, “bun-in-the-oven” type love/bonding goes, they just can’t experience it…. any more than your dog can experience cooking breakfast or driving a car.
One final note to add. If you watch The Kids Are Alright, one possible conclusion a person could derive is something of the following: “See, two women can raise children successfully, so why even bother with men?! Besides, men are trash! Men are useless! Men are predatory, oppressive pigs!” This is not a healthy viewpoint, though. It’s very dangerous. And if you don’t think there are people out there who think this way, then you’re not paying close enough attention. Those who do think this way are either highly egotistical or they’ve never had one positive experience with a man in their life (not a father, not a pastor, not a coach, not a teacher, not a romantic partner).
The more appropriate conclusion is that there are certain aspects of parenting that are necessary and central. They are necessary and central regardless of race, gender, sex, orientation, economic status, nationality, ethnicity, or even whether one gives birth naturally or adopts children. I don’t speak from the perspective of a parent (I’m not one). I speak from the perspective of a son and, also, that of a potential, prospective parent — the same way, for instance, someone might accept certain preconditions before becoming- or even considering becoming- an airline pilot. You must prioritize their health, safety, and happiness before yours. Also, you must rear them into socially acceptable, well-functioning members of society.
As long you meet those bullet points, though, however you accomplish it is all good. If a mom and a dad works, that’s fine. If a dad and a dad works, that’s fine. Or, as in the case of The Kids Are Alright, if a mom and a mom works, that’s fine as well!
And with that, Happy Mother’s Day 2023!