THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
Two of the best films you’re likely to see this year open in Chicago on Friday. The Kids Are All Right, a straightforward comedy-drama by the talented Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon), looks at an atypical family in Los Angeles—a lesbian couple and their teenage son and daughter, each child conceived by a different mother but from the same sperm donor—and finds them to be fairly typical after all. Giorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth, a bizarre black comedy from Greece that won the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2009 Cannes film festival, involves a conventional middle-class family—mom, dad, teenage son, two teenage daughters—that turns out to be warped beyond belief. By some odd coincidence, both movies are frontal assaults on the traditional nuclear family and comic meditations on how children are shaped (or misshaped) by their parents’ attitudes toward sexuality. But you might be surprised by what different routes they take to arrive at the same destination.
Plenty of movies strive for topicality, but occasionally something like The Kids Are All Right slaps you in the face with the world you’re actually living in. The first sperm bank in the U.S. opened in the early 70s—almost two generations ago—but this is the first movie I can think of that’s treated artificial insemination not as some sort of gimmick for comedy or melodrama but as an established fact of American life. Eighteen-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska of Alice in Wonderland) and her 15-year-old brother, Laser (Josh Hutcherson), decide to track down their common biological father without consulting their mothers. They find him to be an easygoing restaurateur and organic farmer named Paul (Mark Ruffalo), and as he begins to insinuate himself into the family’s life—to the fascination of Laser’s mom, Jules (Julianne Moore), and the growing anger and dismay of Joni’s mom, Nic (Annette Bening)—Cholodenko exposes the confused feelings of a family toward someone who’s part of them yet a complete stranger. As Jules tells Paul, “I just keep seeing my kids’ expressions in your face.”
At the same time, Cholodenko—who’s a lesbian herself, and has with her partner a four-year-old son by an anonymous sperm donor—seems especially interested in how Joni and Laser discover themselves sexually in a gay family. Much of the comedy comes at the expense of Nic and Jules, who like to spice up their humdrum sex life with gay-male porn videos (they accidentally hit the TV remote and blast the soundtrack through the house) and automatically assume that Laser is experimenting sexually with a male buddy (in fact he’s increasingly alienated by the guy’s macho bullshit). When Jules stumbles onto the boys watching one of the porn videos in stunned disbelief, it’s hard to tell who’s supposed to feel more busted, them or her. Joni has a rocky friendship too, with a sex-obsessed girl pal, and she isn’t sure how to behave with the shy male friend she has a crush on. Both Joni and Laser look to be straight, but they’re almost comically unimpressed by their mothers’ alternative lifestyle; the most important thing they’ve picked up from their parents is that love and devotion are more important than sex, a thoroughly traditional notion.
Of course, redefining the family according to this love and devotion rather than any rigid gender roles is a cherished goal of lifestyle liberals, and though The Kids Are All Right sometimes smacks of political correctness, Cholodenko succeeds brilliantly in making her little clan seem completely run-of-the-mill. “No phone calls at the table,” Jules scolds her son as the four of them gather for dinner. Her union with Nic resembles any straight marriage that’s survived two decades: they argue about how to handle the kids, about Nic’s drinking, about Jules’s inability to find a career. The kids are embarrassed by their parents’ emotionality and irritated by their nagging and household rules. In the end, Paul, who’s straight, turns out to be the one whose parenthood is questionable: he wants relationships with his children, but the only sacrifice he’s ever made for them was jerking off into a container for $60 a pop. “You’re a fucking interloper,” Nic tells him near the end of the movie. “You want a family? Go make your own.”
No one could so easily infiltrate the family in Dogtooth. They live out in the country, in a nicely appointed home completely surrounded by a high fence. Stone-faced Father (Christos Stergioglou) works in some sort of sterile industrial plant, where he tells coworkers that his wife has been confined to a wheelchair after a tragic accident and refuses to have guests. In fact Mother (Michele Valley) is perfectly healthy and takes responsibility for home-schooling Older Daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia), Son (Hristos Passalis), and Younger Daughter (Mary Tsoni). None of the children has ever been outside the fence, and in the opening scene they listen to a cassette tape Mother has recorded to teach them vocabulary words: a sea is “a leather armchair with wooden arms,” a motorway is “a very strong wind,” an excursion is “a very resistant material,” and a carbine is “a beautiful white bird.” The teens—all of them blond and quite beautiful—sit around in their underwear staring blankly at each other as they listen to the tape; you get the feeling they’ve been doing so for their entire lives.
Father’s worldview is conveyed pretty succinctly by the dog trainer he visits to pick up his Doberman. The trainer refuses to let him go until the training is complete. “Dogs are like clay,” the trainer tells him, “and our job here is to mold them.” When Son is caught standing out by the fence, his punishment is to hold mouthwash in his mouth until Father tells him he can spit. The children are slapped in the face for the smallest infraction of the rules, and when Father learns that Older Daughter has gotten hold of some videos, he asks her to duct tape one of the VHS cassettes to his hand and then beats her about the head with it. One evening Father asks the teens if they’d like to hear their grandfather singing, puts on an LP of Frank Sinatra crooning “Fly Me to the Moon,” and mistranslates the lyrics for them: “Dad loves us. Mom loves us. Do we love them? Yes, we do.” Delighted, the kids all stand up and dance around clumsily.
Given this bizarre upbringing, one can’t be too surprised by the children’s infantile sexuality. The only person Father allows inside the fence is Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), a young security guard he brings home periodically to copulate with Son. Alone in the boy’s bedroom, Christina and Son sit on the bed facing each other, and she masturbates him as he stares down at his crotch, expressionless. After the children are asleep, Father and Mother sit up late watching hardcore porn on TV, but the significance of the sex act is completely lost on the teenagers. During her next visit, Christina offers Older Daughter a spangled headband to go down on her, and the girl agrees; after Christina has departed, Older Daughter tries to repeat this transaction with Younger Daughter but asks her sister to lick her shoulder. Only later does Older Daughter figure out what she’s doing with Christina, worriedly asking the woman, “Do you know what Dad will do if he finds out I lick your keyboard?”
Each movie communicates its sense of the family pretty clearly through its setting, which seems appropriate when you consider how kids are affected by their environment. In Dogtooth it’s the fenced-in yard, equally good at confining children and dogs; like inbred animals, Son, Older Daughter, and Younger Daughter are handsome but crazy, and one can easily imagine them having to be put down at some point. In The Kids Are All Right, it’s the organic farm tended by Paul and his backyard, the landscaping of which Jules takes on as a professional project. There’s a great emphasis on nurturing plants, and the fact that Joni and Laser are such demonstrably good people speaks to the power of air and sunlight. The movie ends with Joni going off to college, a quotidian scene whose heartache will be familiar to many children and parents. The family in The Kids Are All Right may be wonderfully healthy and the family in Dogtooth desperately sick, but both movies come down to the same truth: you never really know how successful any family has been until it breaks apart. v
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