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The Kids Are All Right

Are queers just like everyone else?

Are queers just ordinary human beings, with the same hopes and fears and neuroses and dreams as everybody? Or are queers fundamentally different from straight people, with profoundly different ways of dealing with sex and gender and love and family?

It's a question that shows up most dramatically in debates between assimilationists and separatists (and those of us on the spectrum in between). But it also shows up in the hearts and minds of queers—and straight people with queers in their lives—when we're searching our souls in private about who we are and how we fit into the world.

And it's a question explored in fascinating, funny, painful, complicated, and almost excruciatingly human detail in the brilliant new film, The Kids Are All Right.

Along with a whole host of equally compelling questions about sex, humanity, and selfhood.... and how they intertwine.

The Kids Are All Right.
Starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, and Josh Hutcherson.
Written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg.
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko.
Focus Features.
104 minutes. Rated R.

Directed by Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon, High Art), The Kids Are All Right stars Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as Nic and Jules, a long-term lesbian couple with two teenage kids: one on the verge of college, the other still in the depths of high school. Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) get curious about their anonymous sperm donor/ father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo): they look him up, meet him, and begin folding him into their family life.

Not- so-wacky hijinks ensue. Paul, an easygoing, live-for-the-moment restaurant owner and self-avowed non-team-player, is in a lot of ways a breath of fresh air for this family, and the things he has to offer are things each of them needs: independence and rebellion for Joni, a model for manhood other than "macho asshole" for Laser, a willingness to relinquish control and let things be for Nic, and for Jules... well, I'll get to that in a minute, when I get to the spoilers. But the flip side of Paul's easygoing, live-for-the-moment attitude is his self-absorption and irresponsibility, his blithe disregard for the effect he has on others. And the breath of fresh air he breathes into the family soon becomes a hurricane.

So what does this have to do with queerness? Well, one of the first things you notice about Nic and Jules is all the ways they're like every other long-married couple. Of any sexual orientation. The casually deep intimacy and the dumb squabbles; the easy affection and the old, unresolved conflicts; the long history of things that never get said and the long history of things so well understood they don't need to be said... all this will be instantly familiar to anybody who's married. Or who knows people who are married. Which is to say, anybody.

Yet at the same time, Nic and Jules are very much a lesbian couple. At times to the point of being scary. The processing, the casual use of therapy-speak both to communicate and to score points, will have every lesbian couple in the audience hiding under the seats in embarrassed recognition. More positively, the two women's ease with their bodies and with each other's bodies, the complete comfort with which they see themselves as women while offhandedly rejecting almost every conventional image of femininity, will be instantly and delightfully familiar to anyone who's hung around dykes for more than fifteen minutes. And of course, the crux of the story—the kids of the two moms looking up their sperm donor—hinges on the special circumstances of this being a queer family. As does the particular way that Hurricane Paul wreaks havoc on the family. (Again—more on that in a tic.)

So are Nic and Jules just like every other married couple? Or is their lesbian marriage fundamentally different from a straight marriage?

The answer—to both questions—is Yes. Yes, this is a marriage much like any marriage, a story almost any married couple will relate to. And at the same time: Yes, this is a lesbian marriage, deeply rooted in lesbian culture. Queers are human beings—we're not frogs or barnacles, of course we have deep things in common with the rest of the human race. And at the same time: Queers are queers, part of a unique culture, with experiences and quirks that even the most queer-friendly straight people are never going to get.

But Nic and Jules are more than just another married couple. And they're more than just a distinctly lesbian married couple.

They're Nic and Jules.

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Greta Christina
July 27th, 2010
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Greta Christina is editor of the annual Best Erotic Comics series. She is also editor of Paying for It: A Guide by Sex Workers for Their Clients, and author of "Bending," an erotica novella in the...