Friday, 5 November 2010


The odd thing about The Kids Are All Right, which premiered at the London Film Festival and is on release now, is that for all its media hype, it isn't really about the issues of sperm donor fathers and their children, nor is it about lesbian marriages. What it is about is marriage, specifically what happens what something shakes up a long-standing relationship. In fact, in its set-up it's about as traditional a sit-com as anything on TV, and though as the film progresses they eschew the reliance on more hackneyed laffs, director Lisa Cholodenko also passes on trying to address bigger issues in a bigger way. However it doesn't have to because another film, Donor Unknown, which receives its world premiere at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival tomorrow, does exactly that.

Kids is a pleasantly enjoyable film, with Annette Benning (Nic) and Juliette Moore (Jules) doing exactly what needs to be done as the gay couple, and Mark Ruffalo as Paul lending small ambiguities to his portrayal of the sperm donor who fathered each woman's child. What is interesting is the way the film, at almost every opportunity, sets itself up for ease with its main characters. The most interesting, in many ways, are the children: serious student Joni (named for Joni Mitchell and played wonderfully by Mia Wasikowska) who's about to go off to college, and 15 year old slacker Laser (yes Laser, played by Josh Hutcherson) who's the one who wants to discover who his biological father is. Each is given a creepy friend to show their relative stabilty, as if to reinforce the normality of gay parenting, but perhaps suggesting each needs some further influence to put them back on course. Hence the desire to find a father. At first, it goes swimmingly; organic restaurateur Ruffalo is groovy and bonds with his offspring, which of course creates tension between tightly-wound doctor Benning and free-spirit Moore, especially when, after they meet and she begins work on his garden, Moore winds up in bed with Ruffalo.

The sex scenes in the film are telling: Ruffalo and his maitress d' girlfriend have energetic and fairly graphic sex on camera, and his scenes with Moore are also relatively explicit (Moore did, after all, play Amber Waves in Boogie Nights); they stand in sharp contrast to the married couple's love-life: a romantic bath ended by a call from a patient, and a very strange scene where they put gay porn in the video and Benning looks tired while Moore labours while hidden under the covers). The Ruffalo-Moore coupling is never particularly convincing, but it isn't meant to be; it is a function of each's instablilty: Ruffalo's sudden desire to short-cut maturity and find a family and Moore's for some self-esteem raising desire to match her success with the garden. Her name, Jules, denotes a sense of proud display, as if she is a trophy bride and wants to be more.

It builds up to two key moments. The more important is a thumper worthy of Oliver Stone, a moment when the entire movie grinds to a halt as Moore announces to her family, gathered on the sofa watching TV, and to us in the audience, that marriage is difficult and you have to work hard to keep it together. There is a question about why we would want to keep it together; these are not always pleasant characters—Benning is didactic and a control freak, a dominant father as denoted by her male name, Nic, while Moore casually fires her Mexican worker simply to cover her own embarrassment—but it's delivered powerfully, and works emotionally, not least because of Benning's initial worry that Moore has 'gone straight'. But in light of that, it ties things up too neatly. I kept thinking of the contrast with Cholodenko's remarkable 1998 first feature, High Art, in which Rahda Mitchell's ambitious young journalist breaks up the relationship between photographer Ally Sheedy and seedy German actress Patricia Clarkson. The ambiguity of Mitchell's character's ambition puts a spin on the triangle which this one doesn't really have.

Though it could have. Ruffalo here is a Boudu figure, brought into a house and slowly turning it inside-out. This could have been played with a more sinister bent (I kept thinking of The Stepfather, here) or it could have worked to a difficult resolution. Instead, Benning is given her own thumper, where she announces to Ruffalo (and the audience) that he's an interloper and if he wants a family make his own. He then disappears, and all the issues he raised presumably disappear with him. The point of the film now appears to be revealed by the title, the kids certainly are all right, and they will be all right without him. In the end, Cholodenko seems constrained by the need to make this film play to the mainstream; Carter Burwell's obtrusive NPR soundtrack score indicates this is an 'independent' film, but it seems to be worried lest anyone not get that it is a universal story. It works best when it tries least hard, and succeeds, in the end, at what it probably set out to do, be an entertaining light comedy with a slightly off-beat concept.

The real brilliance of Ruffalo's performance is the way he hides and reveals the essential immaturity of his character, and perhaps I was more sensitive to this immaturity because I had already seen Donor Unknown. Originally called Donor 150 (I liked the original title better, for its sf overtones, and because the donor is known, and is crucial), it tells a true story which obviously served as source material for this film: how a New York Times article about a sperm donor who'd fathered scores of children led to a number of them tracking him down, and the half-siblings gathering to meet their biological father.

Jeffrey Harrison is a self-described beach bum who lives with his dogs in an RV in Santa Monica or Venice beach parking lots and rescues pigeons. A one-time male model who posed in Playgirl in 1984, he at one time earned his rent by selling sperm to the California Cryobank, two or three times a week at $25-50 a pop. He has 'fathered' at least 58 children, and the film follows the efforts of a number of them to make contact with him. The central character is Jo-Ellen, a student in 'intelligence studies' (that's CIA type intelligence, not IQ test type intelligence) in Erie Pennsylvania, with lesbian parents, and it is she who makes contact with her half-siblings and is the driving force. Her innocence, combined with an obviously powerful need to fill an emptiness she feels, makes this a touching story; the more we see of Jeffrey, who has some drug issues, whose idea of fatherhood is confined to his relationship with his dogs, and who feels that the world is just a dream, the more we worry for Jo-Ellen and her siblings when they finally accomplish their goal.

Ruffalo's Paul is like a fantasy version of Jeffrey, without the issues except for the immaturity. He is immune to other people's feelings; he fails to recognise the hurt he causes Tanya (YaYa DaCosta) his casual squeeze who appears to be waiting for just a spark of maturity from him, and he jumps at the easy sort of family his sperm donor status provided. When Laser asks why he donated sperm he babbles about helping people, just as Jeffrey talks about 'the miracle attached', when the reality is it was money for pulling old rope.

In the end Donor Unknown is a far more gripping film than The Kids Are All Right, and every bit as entertaining. Director Jerry Rothwell can play with ambiguities, or rather let them reveal themselves and resolve themselves, and we hang with sympathy on JoEllen's reaction to Jeffrey, and what her future might hold. Because Donor Unknown concentrates solely on the issue of fatherhood, the difference between nature and nurture, the biological urge to find one's roots, and doesn't have to entertain or veer off into teen angst or the hardships of marriage, gay or straight, it is free to challenge its viewers, and it is certainly one of the best docs of the year, and a highlight of the Sheffield Festival.

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