The primary love relationship in The Kids Are All Right (2010), though between two women, is one of the more realistic cinematic portraits of a successful if flawed “marriage” of long-standing.
Nic (Academy Award nominee Annette Benning) and Jules (Julianne Moore) own a home and have reared two kids together, each one bearing a child from the same sperm donor. The partners bicker and snipe, show affection and resentment, worry together over their children and try to support one another financially and emotionally. Like every successful marriage, this one has its ups and down, sustained through the most challenging moments by love, loyalty and a satisfying sex life.
Few films portray successful relationships in their advanced stages. Most of them deal with courtship obstacles, culminating in happily-ever-after endings that involve marriage or commitment; others, such as Blue Valentine, give us a relationship that falls apart. The Kids Are All Right provides a realistic view of a long-term relationship, with all its warts, rewards and limitations.
Early in the film, when we see them seated at the dinner table, discussing daughter Joni’s imminent departure for college and the inappropriateness of son Laser’s friendships, we understand that this is a family, that the partners are concerned and involved parents in every sense of the word. When Jules snipes at Nic about her drinking or Nic complains that Jules is a financial drain on family resources, we see that this marriage has its problems like any other.
Part of any long-term marriage involves accepting a certain amount of disappointment (nobody gets everything he or she wants in a partner) and learning to live with qualities in your mate that bother you, even if you can’t help voicing your complaints from time to time.
When the children track down and make contact with their biological father Paul (Mark Ruffalo), it places additional strain on the relationship between Nic and Jules, especially given the difference in their reactions. Jules finds Paul attractive, sharing with him an interest in horticulture, while Nic resents his intrusion into the family and feels her control threatened. Writer/Director Lisa Cholodenko portrays the ensuing rift with insight and compassion.
At first Nic belittles Jules for taking on the landscaping job offered by Paul, then feels remorse and tries to demonstrate her support by visiting the work site and offering Jules the comfort of a bath and massage. Later, in confusion and anger, Jules betrays Nic in the most hurtful way possible, then offers the entire family her heartful apology (along with a gritty description of married life) in the film’s most moving speech.
“Marriage is hard. It’s really fucking hard. It’s just two people slogging through the shit, year after year, getting older, changing. It’s a fucking marathon, okay? So sometimes, you know, you’re together so long you stop seeing the other person, you just see weird projections of your own junk. Instead of talking to each other, you go off the rails and act grubby, make stupid choices which is what I did and I feel sick about it because I love you guys and I love your mom and that’s the truth. Sometimes you hurt the ones you love the most, I don’t know why. … Anyway, I just wanted to say how sorry I am for what I did. I hope you’ll forgive me eventually.”
Marriage as a fucking marathon — one of the more unsentimental assessments I’ve ever heard. Sometimes you can’t see your partner because you’re too busy projecting your own junk — that describes just about every relationship I’ve ever seen or been a part of. On occasion, you hurt the ones you love the most. Sound familiar?
And what makes it possible to stay in the marathon, to come back together when you veer apart, to recover from the emotional wounds you inevitably inflict upon one another? Love, guilt and forgiveness. If you can truly feel remorse for what you’ve done and admit it, be forgiven and forgive in your turn, knowing it won’t be the last time an apology will be necessary, then the relationship can survive. If you continue to project without recognizing it, if you refuse to own your guilt and make amends, insisting that you are right, you’ll join the swelling ranks of “divorced” couples and spend your life alone.
Photo by Gavin Stewart, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.