The Kids Are All Right, the new film starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a gay couple raising two children, has received rave reviews for its heartfelt portrayal of an American family grappling with issues small and large. Parents will relate to the small conflicts, including everything from sketchy friends to possible drug use. The larger issue, seeking out a biological parent, may not seem so familiar. Yet no matter a family’s make up, there are valuable lessons to be learned from this movie.
Kids are resilient. The title, The Kids Are All Right, was also the title for a 1983 book that told the story of four siblings who endured overwhelming tragedies to survive and stay together. Although the book is unrelated to the movie, both show the incredible resilience of children. Young people are often stronger than we expect. In the film, the two teens, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson) experience earth-shaking changes to their lives, but manage to land on their feet.
Parenting styles can be different. Nic (Bening) is the strict authoritative parent, while Jules (Moore) more laid back. And while parents should never be polar opposites in their approach (that can lead to a divide and conquer strike on the part of the children), oftentimes a slight difference in style allows for negotiation. Both Nic and Jules agree on the basics—teaching their children values, manners, and responsibility to family and others. Nic’s tendency to keep her children on a very short leash, particularly with Joni who, at 18, is an adult, would most likely backfire, if not for Jules’s occasional intervention.
Outsiders can be helpful. Parents sometimes want to believe they are the only adults in their children’s lives. But many other adults can influence our children. An outside observation may prove to be insightful and valuable. In the film, the children’s biological father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), understands that Joni needs more freedom than the little being doled out by Nic. And he rightly concludes that Laser’s best friend, Clay, is trouble. While it may be difficult to hear suggestions, even criticism, from someone outside of the family, the smart parent will listen.
Traditional roles endure. Even in a gay marriage, partners may fall into traditional roles, with one adult the breadwinner, the other the primary caregiver. And those stereotypes can lead to resentment on the part of one or both parents. In the film, Nic, a doctor, supports the family, while Jules, assumes primary responsibility for the household and is ambivalent about working. When a third party, the biological father, drops into their midst, Nic and Jules are forced to reexamine their arrangement. What we learn is that balancing the work-family equation is always a challenge, no matter the make up of the couple, and both parties need to communicate their feelings to keep this partnership working.
Biology is only one link. Paul, the sperm donor, is the children’s biological father, yet does that award him the right to be a parent? Does sharing a child’s DNA automatically confer parental status? Nic and Jules are understandably put off by this interloper who appears on the scene and begins to vie for their children’s attention. The two women are further annoyed because he seems to want all the fun and none of the responsibility. Of course, as a sperm donor, Paul never expected to actually become a parent, but once he meets the fruits of his labor, he becomes enamored with the thought of having a family. It’s not that simple, however. Being a parent is complicated and it’s hard work. The status must be earned and re-earned each and every day.
The traditional family glorified in fifties sitcoms—father, mother, two children—is no longer the only family we see. Now families come in many permutations. Yet the issues faced by the gay couple represented by Nic and Jules are issues encountered by many parents—handling an out-of-control son, dealing with a moody daughter, struggling to balance family and work, and dealing with a partner’s infidelity. No matter what our family looks like, we can draw comfort and wisdom by what we learn in this outstanding film.
Charlene Giannetti is the co-author with Margaret Sagarese of eight books for parents of young adolescents, including The Roller-Coaster Years.