Every once in awhile, a Hollywood movie hits such a perfect note of familiarity that you leave the theater feeling like you just watched a film about your white friends and it was funny, sweet–marvelous, even. And, as you’d expect, messed up on race. Not messed up in a Mel Gibson sort of way. It’s nothing outright hateful, but rather annoying and mundane, like when the white gay guy says his décor is, ya know, "Asiany," and you debate whether to spill red wine on his new, white rug or give him an Edward Said book.
This is the charm of Lisa Cholodenko’s new summer hit, The Kids Are All Right. Her white characters are so familiar and even so likable that you want to believe all they need is a better reading list. If only race relations were so easy.
Ostensibly, The Kids Are All Right is about two lesbian moms and their teenage kids who want to meet their sperm donor dad. It’s an all-star cast with Julianne Moore playing Jules, the flaky, new age mom, opposite Annette Bening, who delightfully remade herself into the soft butch mom Nic. There’s Oscar buzz and critics are rightly praising Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon) for the film’s solid script and the actors for stellar performances. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehire declared that the movie "ranks with the most compelling portraits of an American marriage, regardless of sexuality, in film history."
It’s true. This is a film about two married people who are bored by their middle age sex lives, worried about their son’s choice of friends, and still recounting with giggles how they first met while arguing about how much one of them is drinking. They’re complicated, self-involved and, in their best moments, genuinely loving.
From another perspective though, The Kids Are All Right is also a revealing portrait of where the gay movement has been headed for some time now: white suburbia, Mexican gardener included.
The film is set in Southern California, where Nic and Jules have a comfortable, three-bedroom home, arguments about composting, a glass (or three) of red wine with dinner, a daughter (Alice in Wonderland‘s Mia Wasikowska) and son (Josh Hutcherson) testing the limits of parental authority. They’re the all-American, white family next door.
The political reference point for their home life is not a group of pissed-off drag queens circa 1969. It’s a Mad Men-style 1950s nostalgia. Jules is the stay-at-home mom trying her hand at a landscaping business and feeling that her doctor wife doesn’t appreciate her. Nic is the breadwinner who has to have a drink when she gets home from work. The scenario is inviting, familiar, a storyline about American family life that we want to believe, gay or het.
Like cinematic white heteros and gays in San Francisco’s Castro district, Nic and Jules’ contact with people of darker hues is limited. There’s a black restaurant hostess (Yaya DaCosta, a runner up from America’s Next Top Model), a Mexican gardener (Joaquín Garrido, Like Water for Chocolate), and an Indian teenage love interest (Kunal Sharma, The Cheetah Girls). By the end of the film, the three people of color have been dumped, fired or left behind in confusion.
To be fair to Cholodenko, she was probably just following Hollywood’s race rules. The moment a main character is darker than white bread, the movie becomes about race and doesn’t appeal to a wider (read: white) audience.
But it’s also a portrait of the white gay movement, which has struggled with its race issues for some time now, most publicly after Prop. 8 passed in California and hysterical white gay boys blamed black voters for keeping them from the joys of registering at Tiffany’s. If that happened though it was largely because the movement has failed to build institutions where people of color, like those in The Kids Are All Right, play more than minor roles.
A few months ago, a friend recounted walking into a meeting with the directors of statewide LGBT organizations. It was a majority white room. That the convening looked more like a Tea Party gathering than a 2008 Vote Obama youth rally should have been on the top of the agenda. It wasn’t.
Part of the success of Cholodenko’s movie rests in that, intentioned or not, she’s rendered on the big screen the racial realities of this new gay world order. When Jules is struggling with guilt about what she’s doing outside her matrimonial bed, she thinks Luis, the Mexican gardener she’s hired, is smirking at her, which he is. With comedic self-righteousness, Jules points out that he blows his nose too often. "I have allergies," Luis explains. Fumbling through her words, Jules accuses of him having a drug problem and fires him.
The audience laughs. I laughed. At Jules, at her hysterical reaction, at how uncomfortably true it is that behind the white lesbian niceties can sit the old racist stereotypes of a Gov. Jan Brewer.
It’s a small moment in the film but a reminder of how the gay world mimics the straight one, where economic power goes hand in hand with a racial hierarchy. Were Luis, the Mexican gardener, to get home, take off his overalls and turn into a flaming queen, it would be hard to argue convincingly that he and Jules have a political struggle in common these days. Not impossible, but certainly a stretch.