Film Review: “The Kids Are All Right”

Spoiler alert: don’t read this review if you don’t want to find out what happens in this movie.

Yes, the kids are all right, though their family is unconventional: Joni and Laser have two moms, Nic and Jules, and this lesbian couple each had one of the children, courtesy of an anonymous sperm donor, Paul, when Paul was 19.  Except Paul doesn’t remain anonymous–the now-teenage kids seek him out, and everybody in the family begins to try to relate to this late-coming “dad,” who is a charming hippie organic farmer.  The film’s strength is that it shows the two moms as, hey, just an ordinary couple with ordinary couple problems and helps viewers who might have stereotypical ideas about same-sex couples, reconsider.  And yes, the kids are all right– they have not been adversely affected by having moms instead of a mom and a dad.  Score another point for same-sex marriages. 

Now, then–all hell breaks loose when Jules (played by Julianne Moore) begins doing some landscaping for Paul (Mark Ruffalo).  He appreciates Jules’ work, whereas her partner Nic is something of a control freak and tends to behave “one-up” in her relationship with Jules.  Jules surprises herself by falling into lust with Paul, and after one tryst, they can’t stay away from each other.  He’s falling in love with her, and begins to see that this family thing is really nice, what with the two almost-grown children he now has in his life.

Now I like this film–it captured my attention all the way through with excellent acting and a fine script–but I began to have a problem with the resolution–or non-resolution of the relationship between Paul and Jules.  Basically, Nic finds out about the affair, confronts Jules, and of course the children find out.  Everyone is mad at Paul for messing up this tidy family.  Paul comes over and apologizes abjectly to everyone, and then stands outside the house and in anger and disgust with himself, throws his motorcycle helmet on the ground.  Jules makes a pat speech to the Nic and the kids about how tough marriage is, but how you just have to work through the tough times, and says that she’s sorry for the affair and that she loves Nic.   And that’s supposed to be the end of it?

No, that’s what I don’t buy.  The passion between Jules and Paul is real and was strong, so where are these two going to go with that?  Is it really “all over”?  Are the kids never going to see their biological father again?  Will Paul never be a part of the family?  Also, Nic is not really a very sympathetic character, as I see her.  She comes across as terribly controlling and condescending–plus being uptight and something of a budding alcoholic.  For my money, Paul is a much nicer person.  Yeah, yeah, I know other reviewers are describing him as “self-absorbed.”  I’m not sure exactly why–he is a business man with an organic farm and a restaurant.  He seems to be genuinely sensitive and relational.  And he is way sexy.  

So if Jules is going to give up the passion she has with Paul, who genuinely respects her and cares for her, plus their shared interest in farming and gardening–which we’re all thinking she must do, because no body wants a lesbian couple to break up on screen, and we all want the children to have an intact home, then I wish the director had made Nic a little nicer, a litter easier to live with.


If Women Ruled the World

Just kidding.  If women’s values were predominant, then nobody would “rule the world”: we would understand our profound interdependence, and know that the good of one is inextricably bound to the good of all others.


Which brings me to the fascinating article, “The End of Man,” by Hanna Rosin, in this month’s Atlantic.  Rosin cites some significant changes in the balance of gender roles.  For example, for the first time in history, more women than men make up the work force of our nation.  Women hold 51 percent of the professional and managerial positions (although not so at the top of this heap).  And when choosing the sex of a child, couples these days more often than not say, “We want a girl.”  And this is only the beginning, says Rosin.


So what’s causing the shift?  Maybe we just want a change.  Maybe we’ve had enough ego-based behavior, testosterone-driven wars, puffed-up striving.  Maybe we can see that the values that have driven our society have driven us into the ground and are on the verge of making life unlivable for future generations.  Maybe we’ve saying “enough, already.”


Now we know that both men and women carry both male and female sides within.  So we have no shortage of examples of women who will lead nations into war or who will cut throats in the boardroom.  And there are also plenty of examples of men who are gentle and nurturing, who care passionately for the earth and its inhabitants.  I have two sons I would count among them, and a husband. 


But note that 90% of the folks who are in jail are male.  Men are much more likely than women to develop their aggressive side.  The male hormones, androgen and testosterone; male physical strength; the cultural mandate that men be warriors; the societal conditioning of men to avoid tender feelings; the evolution of an economic system that rewards competition rather than co-operation; and the expectation, until quite recently, that the male be the bread-winner: all these factors have combined to push aggression in the male and to discourage the development of relationality, spirituality, and an emotional life that can contain fear and sadness as well as anger.


So what would the world look like if, in fact, women ruled?  If when you opened your newspaper and saw on the front page a picture of the latest meeting of world leaders, or corporation heads, or members of Congress, almost all of them were women–and not just white women–but women of color–what would our world be like?  Allow me to fantasize, to dream:  


–The United States would no longer squander its resources on foreign wars to protect American business interests and to support our reckless habits of consumption.  Instead, the money would be used for education, for service to the most vulnerable among us, for the strengthening of our infrastructure, both human and material.


–Competition would belong to the world of sport and games, but in other human endeavors, other values would prevail–values such as co-operation, excellence, integrity, character, skill, patience, care, and compassion.  Phrases like “We killed them!” and “We really kicked ass!” and “We rolled over them!”  would sound antiquated and offensive.


–Elected leaders would ask one another the question the Masai tribe use as a greeting, “How are the children?”  And if they cannot answer, as the Masai do, “The children are well,” they would set about making a world in which children would be well, both now and in the future.  Most of these leaders would be mothers, you see–that would be their primary identity–and so more than anything else in the world, they would want the children to have a future.


Everyone needs both male and female energy, both yin and yang, to become a whole personality.  We need the male initiative, courage, power, the thrusting forward; we need the female nurturing, listening, feeling, taking in and holding.  But we’ve been way, way over-loaded with male energy in this culture.  What is happening now, I think, is that we are reaching for more of a balance.  At least that is my fervent hope.  We’ll all be the better for it.


Movie Review: “Winter’s Bone”

When I go to the movies these days and sit through the previews–which start when the feature is supposed to start and run a full fifteen minutes–I despair.  Sometimes it is necessary for me to cover my ears to avoid the noise of the car crashes, the gun fire, the exploding bombs, cities, or planets.  I think to myself, “Why do the producers make all this crap, and for so much money?”  Film is a powerful and potential redemptive medium, and there are a multitude of fine filmmakers working these days.  Why do producers, then, give us heroes like the Prince of Persia and Robin Hood? 

An antidote to the tripe emanating out of Hollywood these days is the powerful and authentic film “Winter’s Bone.”  It is the story of a 17-year-old mountain girl/woman who fights to keep the family home after her father disappears, having put up the home and land as bond for his court appearance.  Ree, the 17-year-old heroine, played magnificently by Jennifer Lawrence, is an authentic, real-life heroine, not a hero gussied up with warrior duds and fancy fighting gear.  No, all she has is a squirrel rifle, and she uses that to hunt squirrels so her family can eat.  Ree is the genuine article: she is courageous, even when her life is endangered; she is tenacious, when most would have given up long ago;  she is fiercely loyal to those she loves; she stands in the truth and no other place; and she is steadfast in parenting her younger brother and sister, putting aside her own needs to care for them.

The film is set in the Missouri Ozarks, and the aesthetic chosen by director Debra Granik is a spare as the land itself.  There are no wasted words in this film.  Much is said by suggestion: by a turn of the lip, by a grunt or a glance.  The camera shows the junk cars and discarded sofas as well as the beauty of the land, the peace as well as the poverty.  The characters who people this film are authentic mountain people: they have survived this far by clan loyalty and by a physical and emotional toughness that most of us can’t begin to understand.  They will look evil in the eye, and they will kill when they have to.  You don’t want to cross them.  Some of the cast members are local people, but the main characters are actors.  John Hawkes is chilling and complex as Teardrop, Ree’s uncle.  The mountain wives know the rules of engagement, and are the ultimate peacekeepers of the community.  When I left the theater, I felt I knew all of these characters.

Compared to most Hollywood films, “Winter’s Bone” was made for chump change–$2,000,000, and supported by tax incentives from the state of Missouri–and it received the best-picture award at the Sundance Film Festival.  It is a redemptive film in the sense that it tells the truth about a people living in extremis, and because the film cuts to the core, and so sharply, we learn more about ourselves–we who have been protected from this depth of knowing by our comparative ease and ignorance.  And it is redemptive because it shows us a heroine who never gives up on what is hers to do.  She finds the truth, and sure enough, it sets her free.

P.S.  A Note to Hollywood Producers: I hate to moralize so blatantly, but if you Hollywood producers had half the integrity of Ree, you would ask yourselves if you really want to keep shoveling this monumentally expensive trash out to the American people and calling it entertainment.  (Apologies to the few good films you manage to get out to the public.)  Life is so much more than making money.  Life is so much more than making money.  Lest you miss my sentiment: Life is so much more than making money. 


The Spiritual Paradox

Sometimes people say things to a stranger that they wouldn’t tell their best friend.  Like the man who was my seatmate on an airplane recently who was telling me about his wife’s death.  “I miss her terribly,” he said.  And then he paused and added, “But I have to confess I’m glad it was her and not me.”

Well, of course.  Such a statement, while not conventional, should not surprising.  We are animal creatures and as such are first and foremost concerned about our own survival.  People sometimes give their lives to further a cause or to protect another, but our natural and wholly understandable tendency is to think “I’m glad it’s not me.”  I’m glad it’s not me who was just diagnosed with cancer, or who lost their job, or whose house was taken by the bank.  It’s not me whose child is doing drugs.  It’s not me whose husband ran off with his secretary.  It’s not me who is standing on the street corner, ragged and hungry.  Thank God, it’s not me.

But what if we began to understand that it could be us and that in fact one day it will be us.  Maybe the specifics of another’s loss will not be our loss–maybe we will not lose a child to an improvised bomb in Iraq, for example–but if we live long enough, and we have the capacity to love, we will be struck with terrible loss and grief.  People we love will die; careers will come to an end, some prematurely; disease will strike; the ravages of age will not pass us by.

So how is it that we prepare ourselves for these eventualities?  I think practicing empathy might be a spiritual discipline worthy of our attention.  When pain or tragedy comes to another, perhaps instead of breathing a sigh of relief and turning away, we might take a moment to try and “feel with” this other person and to invite compassion.  Not only would this practice deepen us spiritually and prepare us for life’s inevitable losses, but we would develop the understanding that we are not separate and apart from others, that we are in fact one.  It is an illusion to believe that we can separate ourselves from the pain of the world. 

But if we develop this kind of empathy, will we then travel our days sad and grief-stricken?  No, not at all.  To begin his spiritual awakening, the Buddha observed poverty and illness and aging for the first time.  To take in the realities of our existence–to own the fact that we are vulnerable and that we will one day die–requires great courage.  And yet to go there is ultimately freeing.  In a way, you might say our expectations have been considerably lowered, and we can let go of a lot of  anxiety–the unacknowledged fear that has been damping down our days.

Have you ever wondered why the Dalai Lama smiles so much?  I heard him speak a few years back when he visited Portland, and in the Q & A, someone asked, “What do you do for fun?”  He answered, “Jokes!”  This is someone whose country was ravaged by a foreign power, and most of its leaders, including many of its monks, killed.  The Dalai Lama travels the world as a religious leader, and he is a spokesperson for Tibet, of course.  But he has a kind of radical acceptance of life precisely as it is, and so joy does not escape him. 

It’s that spiritual paradox that’s so hard to understand, but that is the ground of all spiritual health: we have to lose our life to find it.