Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Kids are All Right (shame about the rest)

There's so much to like about Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbian family drama, The Kids are All Right: the nuanced performances and unpredictable characterisations, the sight of Mark Ruffalo guiltily eying up Julianne Moore’s green thong, the happily matter-of-fact treatment of non-linear sexuality; and equally  so much to irritate in Mike Leigh’s Another Year: the characters who never seem to stop moving their faces, the stage school monologues, the ploddingly predictable story arc. But in one very important area Leigh seems to get things emphatically right, whilst Cholodenko’s gets it ...well, if not wrong, then certainly muddled.

Whilst both films begin from a very similar starting point, focusing on contented, quote-unquote ordinary families, the various struggles of marriage and parenthood, and the humorous encroachment of middle-class alcoholism (although the sheer quantities of wine consumed in the two films surely says something about what constitutes problem drinking on each side of the pond); both films eventually revolve around a foreign element, Ruffalo’s sperm doning Paul in The Kids are All Right, and Mary, the lonely, but mostly chipper friend of NHS councillor Gerri in Another Year.  And it is in the treatment of this third-party that the two films diverge.

Interestingly, both are also outsiders academically, with Annette Benning’s Nic mocking Paul (the college drop-out) for his anti-intellectual comments, and Mary’s much evident shame at only graduating from a secretarial college. Both, more importantly, bring with them an unwanted element of sexuality. Paul’s requited desire for Moore’s Jules, and Mary’s confused yearning for her friend’s 30 year old son, Joe, threaten to unbalance, or even destroy, the tightly guarded family unit. Both Paul and Mary are ostracised, either through a mixture of humiliation and pity, shut out entirely from their adopted families. The difference being that Leigh clearly implores his audience to empathise with the rejected Mary, whereas Cholodenko chooses instead to celebrate an image of the family reunited.

Whilst in The Kids are All Right, Paul gets to act on his deviant wish (seducing, with little effort, the married lesbian Jules), Mary’s desires remains thoroughly conceptual, even unspoken; a fact that makes her punishment all the more unpalatable and strange. In Another Year, the extra-familial outsider is seen as very much the victim, whereas Paul’s untroubled and mostly unthinking move onto Nic’s territory allows us to forgive the family for cutting him out. As a result we find ourselves being asked to side with the oppressors rather than the oppressed.

 Maybe we could choose to view Cholodenko’s apparent conservatism as knowing provocation - placing the comfortably off, charming, white heterosexual in the role of ‘other’, but there is something pretty galling about the treatment of Paul, a character who does little wrong apart from act on his desires (his treatment of his casual lover/fuck buddy is questionable perhaps, but not objectively bad).

Mary is similarly cast-out in Another Year, when her hostility to the Joe’s new girlfriend unwittingly reveals her desperate longing for the younger man (who hardly did much to temper her advances in the first place). Suddenly the caring couple, Tom and Gerri, are shown in a different light: smug and two-faced, humouring their friend to her face, then mocking her behind her back. At the end of the film Mary is back in the family home, but Leigh isolates her in the frame, muted and shorn of all her earlier ‘bubbly’ characteristics; subjugated and neutered by the forces of middle-class family living (she doesn’t even understand the intricacies of carbon emissions and recycling for godssake!)

Whilst the ending is pure Fassbinder, Leigh has devoted plenty of the previous two hours to gently, and not so gently, mocking this pathetic being (the audience I saw the film with were mostly of the Tom and Gerri-style allotment owning classes, gleefully laughing at Mary’s every faux pas) not something Rainer would ever have allowed. (To be fair to Cholodenko, Paul is never to be pitied or mocked, or at least not any more than any other character). Although it’s hard to see what we should feel for Mary apart from pity (outrage  never really comes into it), at least Leigh makes clear where his sympathies lie. In both films the family unit is finally seen as exclusive, cruel and unforgiving of even the slightest transgression. But in Cholodenko’s vision this is, well...alright.

1 comment:

  1. that's just what I suspected about The Kids, and why i didn't go to see it. but on the hand, you've written such a nice piece that i may have to. thanks, jerk. sounds like leigh is back to the suspect miserablisms of life is sweet. in balance, i still like him.