Editor's Note: This review contains spoilers. Not anything you wouldn't get from reading most reviews… but be forewarned. Also, there's profanity, in a direct quote from the movie. Though if you've been following the other, wonderful, articles in this month-long focus on sex and love in Fidelia's, you probably don't have the most delicate of sensibilities. It's hard to as clergy… but still, fair warning.
But unlike many girls at that age, it wasn't pregnancy I feared. It was actual parenthood. At that time, I was at the epitome of poor decision-making. Instead of embracing my somewhat anxious personality and my attraction to women, I tried to make myself fit in. I remember thinking at the time that I would not want to share doubts about myself and subsequent, doubt-filled, lousy decisions with future children. I imagined then that being a parent involved having everything figured out, and while I am certainly aware that being a few years out of adolescence helps parenting immensely, I now know that there's no prerequisite of ultimate knowledge before becoming a parent. We never get it all figured out. We don’t get to pick when we go through transitions, make mistakes, and learn big, painful lessons. Life is messy. I get that; and maybe that's why it's all the more frightening to think about how we are supposed to share our discernment about our identities and our values with children, while they're still in flux.
The Kids Are All Right reminds us of this difficulty. This story revolves around a middle-aged lesbian couple with an eighteen-year-old daughter and fifteen-year-old son. The kids contact their “sperm donor” behind their moms’ backs. This man (Mark Ruffalo) is also going through a time of transitions and welcomes the experience of family. His entry into their life exposes problems in the moms’ relationship and the family’s communication. We watch as this couple makes mistakes: they keep secrets; they cheat. They repress and express a lot of anger. They drink too much. Their children are witness to it all.
A common theme of our culture pervades this movie – don’t talk about conflict in the family and especially not with the kids. An early scene shows the two women (Julianne Moore and Annette Benning) unable to discuss the distrust that's come to pervade their relationship. Likewise, we watch more than one family dinner where each person is physically present but locked in his or her own world. The oldest child struggles with the pressure to be perfect while also secretly wondering how to have a healthy intimate relationship with a boy. The younger brother experiments with drugs and a friendship that pressures him into bad decision making. And the moms have tension in their relationship that is palpable but hardly named.
As the story progressed, I found myself wondering what it would take for each character to communicate with their family about the pain, confusion, and the mess in their lives. It is the adults that slowly begin to face their issues. Redemption begins for Moore’s character when she is in bed, naked with the sperm donor of her children, and she announces, “I am so fucked up.” She names this, and it's a start.
This movie touches on difficult questions of parenting that are overlooked in the media and in our culture: What scars remain after the dust settles in family fighting? Can adults share openly their struggles without overburdening their children? Do we as parents need to give our kids a certain amount of privacy for their individuation? And most of all, how do we talk about sexuality and relationships as parents and children?
I found the simple recognition of these questions as a viewer was refreshing. The topic of sexuality and the knowledge that parents do not have all of life figured out is often ignored. As a minister, I see this reflected in a dearth of church programs confronting healthy sexual living for youth and adults. I also sense this in real (or imagined) pressure not to speak about infidelity or sexuality from the pulpit. What’s more, many Christian mainline educational systems focus little on communication within families. Instead, we bracket children in one class and adults in another and neglect the importance of communicating our faith within our own families. There is little guidance on communicating with our children and for children to communicate with adults.
This is not entirely surprising if we consider the roots of our faith. Throughout the epistles, Paul lectures the earliest Christian communities on how best to care for one another justly, because it is not obvious how to do so! In the early church described in Acts, Christians have one healthy model: the community lives openly and shares all of themselves – their belongings, their struggles, and their sin. The focus was on God through Jesus Christ with the goal of mutually sharing this primary relationship –even above individual families. With this understanding, presumably the responsibility for communication with children and parents was shared with the community. All dimensions of life would be open for interpretation and understanding as they shared in the struggle together with how to live best in relationship with God.
This is an ideal worthy of striving for, but we in the church often come up short. Like the characters in this movie (and sadly the early church itself), we draw a line when it comes to sharing about sexuality and communication between children and adults. In one strain of Christianity, the answer is clearer – God and sexuality do not mix. Our sexual nature is sinful and therefore, any dialogue we have about it must reflect this negativity. In another strain of Christianity (the one I live in), sexuality is not demonized, but it is disconnected from our personhood. There is a separation between our minds and our bodies which translates into a desire not to discuss or think about who we sleep with and what we do in our bedroom. Discussion on authentic living therefore only pertains to what we think and perhaps what we do (as long as we are not talking about doing anything sexually!). We see an example of this understanding of sexuality in the movie when Benning and Moore are being sexually intimate in the bedroom with male porn in the background. When the son discovers the strange porn and wants to discuss it, the parents refuse (I would have loved to see how they justified that odd portrayal of homosexual erotica because I found it strange too!). Everyone seems okay with different forms of sexuality as long as they do not have to talk about it. At one point, the daughter yells at her moms that she is tired of being the “perfect child” for them. It was disappointing that her parents were unable to see how she needed attention and guidance as she is negotiating her own sexuality. This movie demonstrates well how the lack of communication about sexuality strains relationship for all people in the family.
In the end, I struggled with the stifling themes of the movie as I wanted to see lesbian mothers more able than heterosexual mothers to communicate about sexuality in their families. But I did not get my movie about perfect or even nearly perfect lesbian parents! Instead, I was left with a familiar irony to Gospel lovers when at the end of the movie – the kids are all right. Only by God’s grace could our complications in living, loving, and ineffectively communicating not completely mess up them up! Like the rest of us who raised by imperfect parents, the kids will make sense of the messiness of life and the gift of sexuality.
The Kids are All Right is distributed in the US by Focus Features.