Sunday, August 8, 2010

The kids are not the problem

What writer-director Lisa Cholodenko has done in The Kids Are All Right (2010) is one of the oldest story-telling tricks, notwithstanding how nimbly it has been done. Howard Hawks pulled it off in His Girl Friday and cop shows like The Closer have been doing it for years: take an oft-told story and change the gender of one pivotal character.

Look, here's an idea for a movie: an adopted child reaching 18 wants to meet her natural father. The adoptive parents resist it, but finally give in. The natural father begins to integrate into the family, and finds a supportive, positive role for himself. The adoptive mother feeling bored and neglected, drifts into a relationship with the adoptive father. This almost wrenches the family apart, but the outsider is barred and the rest muddle through.

You've seen that movie, right? Or if not that one exactly, close enough to be bored by the idea. So let's make the couple lesbians, and make the natural father a sperm donor. Now we're interested. Why is that? Is it the sex? Certainly the implication that all a tired neglected lesbian needs is a quick hop into bed with a man is questionable and uncomfortable. Actually, awkward is the keynote of the film. The first meeting between Mark Ruffalo and his sperm-donor-kids was an essay in awkward worthy of The Office. And so, making the parents a lesbian couple just amps up the awkward. But just to make sure that the folks buy tickets to the movie, one casts heterosexual actresses. (The movie even makes an intramural joke about it as Jules disdains lesbian porn, "They use straight actresses and the lack of authenticity...")

These types of films tend to be all script and acting, that is, the technique is fine but unremarkable, because the director is much more focused on content than expression. However, I do want to point out a couple of remarkable moments. First, in the scene when Ruffalo and Moore have their first sexual encounter, it appears that the director uses shorter and shorter lenses as the scene progresses. The effect, especially in over-the-shoulder shots is to (apparently) shove the characters closer and closer to each other until they cannot help but fall into each other's arms. Odd how, while I did not anticipate that story turn at the outset, it seemed inevitable once Moore and Ruffalo were alone together. (Wishful thinking from someone who sees too many indie films?)

The other is the moment after Nic (Bening) has discovered her partner's infidelity, but must return to a family meal and preserve the niceties. Now the lens is very wide, very close, but the conversation becomes aurally distant, echo-y with a steady ringing, until Nic pulls herself together and returns to the room. I have had precisely that sensory experience upon receiving news I had difficulty accepting. That distance and ringing was perfect.

The scene in which a character receives life-shattering news--most commonly that of betrayal such as infidelity--that might be an interesting blog post in and of itself.

Speaking of blog posts, Kristen Taylor and David Bordwell, the best analytical thinkers about film around has been really captivated by Inception and have written about it brilliantly here. Read it, and if you don't regularly check their blog (the link is in my list on the right-hand column), you should.

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