Of course the kids are all right. I always knew they would be. Some people were wringing their hands, fretting about how children raised by gay couples might turn out, but I never thought they’d have it any worse than kids from other family configurations – then again, I don’t worship at the altar of the nuclear family. Besides, unlike straight couples who just assume they’ll have children, those living outside the norm are forced to think long and hard before jumping into parenthood; in fact, they don’t “jump” at all – they sometimes go through hell and high water just to become parents. And once they do have kids, they tend to be fairly conscientious raising them. I’m not idealizing gay parents or saying they’re better at it; it’s just that living outside the mainstream in any way whatsoever forces people to deal with a host of issues that heterosexuals never have to think about.
Surprisingly, however, the film’s title is hardly the point. It turns out to be not so much about kids raised by lesbians, but rather about love and family and betrayal, and all the complexities in long-term relationships. It’s about sexuality and sexual identity and the longing for connection. That the kids are all right is almost incidental.
Eighteen-year-old Joni, named for Joni Mitchell and played by Mia Wasikowska, has the riveting looks of Claire Danes; she also happens to resemble someone I know, and I could hardly take my eyes off her. Which is quite a feat when you consider that Annette Benning and Julianne Moore, both knockouts, play the mothers. Their gorgeous looks are underplayed: if they were wearing any makeup in this movie, it was to highlight sags and wrinkles. When Moore’s character dons her gardening gear, she comes off looking like a middle-aged Annie Hall wannabe.
The plot is set in motion when 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) convinces his sister to find their donor, the man whose sperm contributed to their existence, since he’s too young, by law, to get the information himself. Joni, afraid of hurting their mothers, is reluctant, but when she meets Papa Sperm (Mark Ruffalo), she just about falls in love with him. So does everyone else in the family, with the exception of Mama Benning, whose fear of rocking the boat turns out to be well-founded: Mama Moore, while creating a lush garden Papa Sperm hires her to do, jumps into bed with him. The affair almost tears the family apart. That they survive is testament to the strength of their bonds and loyalty to one another – or so I perceive director Lisa Cholodenko’s point to be.
The sex scenes between Moore and Ruffalo are wildly, passionately, animalistic. She literally tears his pants off, and greets what’s inside them like a long lost friend: “Hel-lo!” she says, apparently awestruck. Two or three substantial scenes of their lovemaking follow, in sharp contrast to the women’s sex: there’s been just one anemic scene of them in bed. In it we see Moore moving about under the covers, and Benning’s facial expressions – which would work if she were actually being expressive, but if anything, she seems bored. From underneath the quilt comes the buzz of a vibrator. More movement. End sex scene. The lesbians sitting behind me were laughing their asses off in recognition, and I confess I too got a chuckle out of the scene. The hetero sex scenes had not yet occurred, so it’s only in retrospect that I feel the lesbian couple got the fuzzy end of the lollipop.
More important, because Moore has such a raging good time in penis-land, what comes later on, in the confrontation between her and Benning, seems off kilter. It’s evasive, even false. A bisexual friend of mine was miffed because Benning asks, “Are you straight?” rather than “Are you bisexual?” The latter question, I think, would’ve been out of character, especially during a confrontation – but there is something missing here. Benning’s question doesn’t even seem to register with Moore, and when Benning asks if it was about sex, Moore makes a dismissive face. Finally, she claims that she slept withPapa Sperm because she was feeling “unappreciated.”
Is that what she was getting, her legs high in the air while Papa Sperm pounded into her like a steamroller? Appreciation? Gimme a break! The intensity of the hetero sex scenes, and the absence of romanticism, utterly contradicts the lie.
So I have to ask: Why? Why did the director stereotype lesbian sex as warm and cuddly, while depicting straight sex as raw animal pleasure? Was it fear of letting a mainstream audience see what women really do in bed? Or was she just rewinding old tired stereotypes of female sexuality? I guess it was foolish of me to expect Hollywood to move beyond lesbian stereotypes — a good movie about lesbian mothers is enough of a leap.
But here’s the thing: my criticism isn’t coming from some pro-lesbian-passion crusade. This is not a political ax I’m grinding. What I’m talking about is honesty and believability in art. The director’s choices regarding sexual portrayal wreck the film. Oh, sure, it’s a fun movie, it’s enjoyable to watch – but the premise of the film doesn’t work, not if the implication at the end is, as it appears to be, that the family’s bonds are far stronger than a roll in the hay, and their relationships will heal and go on. From what I saw between that man and woman in bed compared to what I saw between the women’s sheets, I don’t believe this ending one bit. I don’t believe that Mama Moore will be faithful from now on. She’s going to stray again. And again.