This Is to Mother You
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There’s one small part of Lisa Cholodenko’s movie The Kids Are All Right that no journalist can resist bringing up.
“You can’t believe how many fucking people have asked me about the gay male porn,” Cholodenko declares before I’ve even mentioned the Colt-style, vintage muscle flick that lesbian moms Nic and Jules put on while having sex—and that their straight teenage son, Laser, gets caught watching with a friend.
“ ‘So is that from personal experience?’ ” she asks, mocking her interrogators before offering up the answer she’d really like to give: “Shut up! It’s none of your fucking business!”
Now that that’s out of the way, we can talk about the movie—which, despite the aforementioned porno, is a surprisingly mainstream, agenda-free comedy-drama with Oscar-caliber performances by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as the lesbian couple and Mark Ruffalo as their kids’ newly discovered donor dad. The Kids Are All Right is the first so-called lesbian film to reach beyond the indie niche and become a full-on American family movie that’s—dare we say it—a little bit square in its depiction of the nuclear, albeit gay, unit.
“You know what? It is kind of square!” blurts the writer-director between bites of a salad, her late lunch at a café in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. But this time she’s not upset. “The whole thing’s kind of dirty and kind of square. I like that. I’m kind of in that place. I’m tired, man.”
Who can blame her? Since making her first two films—1998’s High Art and 2002’s Laurel Canyon, which earned her indie cred for exploring fluid sexuality in the countercultural milieus of Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s heroin-fueled art scene and the Hollywood Hills’ rock and roll bohemia, respectively—Cholodenko’s life has changed dramatically. The 46-year-old Los Angeles native is now a full-fledged working mom to 4-year-old Calder, her son with her partner of eight years, Wendy Melvoin (Cholodenko gave birth using an anonymous sperm donor).
“It’s brutal,” Cholondenko says of being moms with full-time (and then some) jobs. “We both have these kinds of jobs that you can’t just cut bait and go home.” Melvoin is half of Prince’s former backup duo, Wendy and Lisa, who now write musical scores for TV shows like Nurse Jackie. “So we have a nanny and there’s a lot of ‘Who’s going to be with the kid? You can’t get off early?’ ”
Before day-care anxiety took over, Cholodenko was possessed by a certain empathetic notion: She was imagining what 18 years down the road might be like for her child, conceived through artificial insemination and yearning for some connection to his real father. Thus, The Kids Are All Right was born.
The film’s birth involved a slow, six-year gestation period that helped thrust Cholodenko into the mainstream. She says, “I felt like, Fuck, man, this is in the zeitgeist. This is the stuff that’s affecting our lives, and it hasn’t been put out there with recognizable actors in any kind of mainstream way.”
She wrote a few drafts and quickly learned that the indie film world had changed and that the more distant a story was from everyday people’s lives, the less likely it was to land financing. “The more challenging, the more rarefied tonally, you’re just loading on the obstacles,” she says, explaining that one of those obstacles is gay subject matter. “But if you do something that’s funny and accessible, chances are someone’s going to write a check to help [you] make it.”
Rather than battle the system, Cholodenko opted to work within it. “I went, ‘There’s comedy in here. Let’s bust it open!’ ” she says. For the first time in her career she teamed up with another writer. Stuart Blumberg, himself a donor dad, who wrote the 2000 Ben Stiller comedy Keeping the Faith, brought a comedic sensibility to the process, she says.
Considering how few depictions of same-sex parents exist on-screen, is Cholodenko concerned that presenting these parents’ less-than-admirable moves will send the wrong message to those who oppose marriage equality? “Nope,” she says immediately, shrugging. “You know, I’ll be really blunt. I’ve been out for a long time. I own a house with somebody. We have a child. I’m not even in the consciousness of taking the temperature of people when I meet [them] and wondering how they feel about it. I don’t even care anymore. I’m just done.”
In her assessment, films with political agendas are for gay and lesbian film festivals. “I have an opportunity to have this go into the big, broad world,” she says. “Anything kind of earnest or political went against my own sense of what human nature is really like, the way people are for real.”
If Cholodenko’s films share one trait, it’s that her characters are flawed the way real people are. About these characters, she says, “They’re people who are still in touch with culture and listen to cool music and say the word ‘fuck’ in front of their children and drink too much wine and do things that some people might not think are the right things to do. But they can still be kind of upstanding and have a very specific code of ethics for their kids and values and raise good kids.”
Is she also describing herself? “When I think about what goes on in my house,” she muses, “it’s not hippieville over there, but I wouldn’t say it’s squeaky-clean.”
It’s not spoiling anything that’s not revealed in the movie’s trailer to say that Moore’s character, Jules, gets entangled sexually with her kids’ donor dad. “It’s less like she met a guy in the supermarket and decided to stray,” Cholodenko explains. “It’s more like, Oh, my God! You’re the father, we have a child together, and there’s something sexy and confusing about that!”
With that twist, The Kids Are All Right lands back in the subversive territory the filmmaker has explored in the past—in which characters pay no attention to proscribed societal bounds of a given sexuality and jumbled feelings arise.
“The movie somehow manages to get at the kind of chaotic messiness that is involved in any family,” Bening says. “At the same time, it’s talking about how most of us desperately want to keep our families together and we want to find a way to raise our children, to make it all work.”
There’s even sex. Good, old-fashioned sex scenes like movies used to have—where you see breasts and asses and orgasms (oh, my!). “You know what?” Cholondenko says. “I think the movies are so behind the times, it’s sad.” With that she’s off on a rant that confirms she hasn’t lost her edge: “There’s such a mandate to democratize films, to justify their budgets and to make money, and all the things [result in] the whitewashing of content.”
The title of the film, The Kids Are All Right, embodies Cholodenko’s ethos. What might have been an earnest contribution to the cultural conversation is instead a wry allusion to earnest contributions. “It’s a total riff on that,” she says of the title, borrowed from the song by the Who. “It’s a total ironic nod to [the idea] that, you know, we can’t have gay schoolteachers,” she says with a look of disbelief.
Earnest or not, Cholodenko’s movie carries a message. “They’re fine,” she says. “The kids have gay moms, and they’re fine.”