Earlier this year, The Kids Are Alright was receiving all sorts of attention for its portrayal of a lesbian married couple with two children (each had one child) from the same sperm donor. It looks like a quirky family drama/comedy (Little Miss Sunshine), but fathers aren’t included in that dynamic. This film wouldn’t piss on fathers if they were on fire – it just pisses on them, period.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR WHOLE POST
For starters, fifteen year old Laser asks his older sister Joni to contact their biological father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Evidently once Joni turns eighteen she can call contact the sperm bank to see if the anonymous donor would be willing to meet his long ago conceived offspring. Paul agrees to chat, the kids meet him and have a rocky start, but eventually a relationship starts to build.
In stark contrast to the way über-mommy Nic (Annette Bening) cajoles, Paul gently nudges the kids with suggestions and comments. There’s no pressure, he just says what he thinks they should consider and moves on. It’s then through Paul’s guidance that Joni starts to set boundaries for Nic’s controlling demeanor.
Even better, Nic and Jules (Julianne Moore) are worried about Laser at the beginning of the film since he seems differently lately; Nic specifically thinks it’s the company he’s keeping: Clay, a drug using wannabe skateboarder whose idea of a good time is peeing on stray dogs.
And who, pray tell, helps Laser get up the gumption to tell Clay to bugger off?
So how does the film take the laid back, nice father/sperm donor character and turn him into a piñata? Nic has been distant (emotionally and physically) and overall snotty to Jules, which strains the marriage to the point that Jules kisses Paul, which kicks off a full blown affair. When it goes public, Nic is upset (obviously) and the kids, who had been spending tons of time with Paul to the consternation of Nic, blow him off.
Eventually Paul visits the house to talk to Joni face to face. He apologizes for helping muck up the family situation, expresses how much he values his new found daughter, and practically begs to be able to see her again. All she says is that she doesn’t know if that can happen. The scene ends with Nic slamming the door in his face, and when Laser catches Paul’s eye through the window, Laser walks away.
Jules then apologizes to the whole family, they help Joni move to the dorm, and as Jules and Nic drive home, they hold hands. Fin.
BUT WHAT ABOUT PAUL?! You have a freakin’ sperm donor who doesn’t contact them, but is sought by his children and turns out to be a decent guy who really cares about his kids. Hell, he proves more involved and helpful with his children than the bickering mothers. To top it all off Jules is the one who starts the affair, but Paul is the one who takes all the heat and gets kicked out of the cool kids club. Mom makes a big speech, apologizes, and we’re okay with her; but that new guy, even when he’s begging to be a loving parent, gets kicked to the curb.
It’s like they introduced a labrador puppy that brightens everyone’s day, but as soon as he makes that one piddle on the carpet, off to the pound he goes. The guy is so sincere and kind (blowing off a former sex buddy because he wants to eventually have a family; treating Jules and the kids much better than Nic does) that not getting him back into the fold by the end of the film makes the whole family look like a bunch of unforgiving assholes.
Finally, the icing on the cake, the cherry on top of the sundae, is that a film prominently featuring a lesbian marriage also kicks aside a nice male character with little explanation – which leaves the subtextual aftertaste of manhating.
Given that, I don’t believe that was the intention. Really, I think that as they were writing the script, they realized halfway through how well they had built up Paul as a nice guy, while they had simultaneously been chipping away at the lesbian couple. So by the last 1/3 or so they’re in damage control mode and decide to flip it – eff the Paul guy, let’s show Nic and Jules patching things up.
If the film had followed through on where the affair was going, Jules would divorce Nic to be with Paul, who is supportive, not spiteful, and Nic would be left out in the cold – which, given how Nic stomps around spitting spite through the whole film, would have felt more reasonable (of course, that and the affair itself has the nasty connection to the chauvinistic adage “all lesbians need is a good lay to turn them straight”).
My review in brief: the writers completely botched how to deal with Paul and since he’s the best part of the whole film, it will piss you off to see how quickly he’s disposed of. The family may have a bright future as they drive off into the sunset holding hands, but you’ll be too busy looking out the back window crying as you leave Paul in the car’s dusty wake to really care.