“Hysteria”: What the New Movie About the Fascinating History of the Vibrator Leaves Out

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

A romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator. Set in Victorian England. With references to feminism, socialism, class privilege, phone sex, prostitution, harm reduction, science, evidence-based medicine, and steampunk. What could be bad?

A fair amount, unfortunately.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed “Hysteria” quite a bit. I found it funny (generally), charming (usually), intelligent (mostly), and entertaining (often). But I wanted so much more than to just like it. I wanted to love it. I wanted to be shouting about it from the rooftops. I wanted to be stopping strangers on the street, grabbing them by the lapels, and pleading with them to run out and see it right this minute. It was a movie about the invention of the vibrator, for fuck’s sake. I didn’t want to leave the theater thinking, “Yeah, that was pretty good — but it could have been so much better.”

And far too much of what was wanting from the film had to do with its treatment of the central topic — female orgasm. [Read more...]

Blogathon for SSA: Documentaries

Saw the Avengers last weekend. Or was it the weekend before? I forget.

Which kind of tells you something.

I was all prepared to be hugely excited about this movie. What with being a giant Joss Whedon nerd and all. But I found it a little “meh.” It was fine, it was reasonably enjoyable; but I kind of felt bludgeoned by action sequences, and not particularly carried away by the story. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen the other superhero movies that led up to this one, and I don’t read these comics… so the story may have been tapping into deep, complex depths of backstory that I just wasn’t getting. But in fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a feature film that really excited me. “The Ledge,” I guess.

On the other hand, I can easily remember a recent-ish documentary that really excited me. “Black Power Mix Tape.” And another: “We Were Here: The AIDS Years in San Francisco.” And in fact, over the last several years, almost all the films that I can easily call to memory are documentaries. “Super Size Me.” “Good Hair.” “Sicko.” “Stonewall Uprising.” “Freedom Riders.” “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”

I can’t decide if we’re in a golden age of documentaries, or if feature films have gotten less interesting… or if I just have a fetish for reality.

I prefer non-fiction books to novels, too. So maybe it’s the latter. Then again, I kind of think that writing is going through a golden age of non-fiction,. So maybe there’s a “golden age of reality” thing in our culture. Thoughts?

This post is part of my blogathon for the Secular Student Alliance. Donate today!

I’ve posted some quotes talking about why the Secular Student Alliance is so awesome, and why they deserve your support. If you have a story or a comment about why the Secular Student Alliance is so awesome — post it in the comments, and I’ll post it in the blog! Along with kitten photos, of course. Support the SSA!

‘Hysteria': What the New Movie About the Fascinating History of the Vibrator Leaves Out

A romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator. Set in Victorian England. With references to feminism, socialism, class privilege, phone sex, prostitution, harm reduction, science, evidence-based medicine, and steampunk. What could be bad?

A fair amount, unfortunately.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed “Hysteria” quite a bit. I found it funny (generally), charming (usually), intelligent (mostly), and entertaining (often). But I wanted so much more than to just like it. I wanted to love it. I wanted to be shouting about it from the rooftops. I wanted to be stopping strangers on the street, grabbing them by the lapels, and pleading with them to run out and see it right this minute. It was a movie about the invention of the vibrator, for fuck’s sake. I didn’t want to leave the theater thinking, “Yeah, that was pretty good — but it could have been so much better.”

And far too much of what was wanting from the film had to do with its treatment of the central topic — female orgasm.

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, ‘Hysteria': What the New Movie About the Fascinating History of the Vibrator Leaves Out. To find out more, read the rest of the review. Enjoy!

“Why Are You Atheists So Angry?” Promo Video!

The promo video for my book, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, is out!

I had more fun than a barrel of monkeys making this video. Especially the part where… well, you’ll see. It was a challenge, trying to distill the essence of a whole book into a 3:16 video, but I’m really happy with how it turned out. It’s a lot like the book in some ways: serious points and stuff, but also entertaining, and with some very funny bits. Especially the bit where… well, you’ll see.

It’s here on YouTube, or you can watch it right here on this blog.



Enjoy! If you like it, send it to your friends, link to it from your blogs, Tweet it and Facebook it and G-plus it, show it to your pastor, screen it at your Easter party. Remember: you can buy the book on Kindle, or on Nook. And many thanks to the video production team for their excellent work!

Dream diary, 9/24/11: The Nude Version of “Sideways”

I dreamed that I was watching a version of the movie “Sideways” that was exactly the same as the original, except that all the actors were in the nude. The main thing that was surprising about this, apart from the fact that it existed, was that both Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church had extensive tattoos over most of their bodies, and that Paul Giamatti had a full backpiece depicting the Three Stooges.

I have my archives!

I have my archives from my old blog! They’re here! With comments and everything! They’re even in the right categories!

Images and videos didn’t make it over, and there are a handful of posts that didn’t make it and that I’ll have to put in by hand. (For some reason, it didn’t like my posts about alternative medicine, speaking at Stanford, making atheism a safe place to land, atheists having morality, and my recipe for chocolate pie. Make of that what you will.) But I can live with that. The archives are here. Years of my old work — all finally in one place. This has been driving me up a tree, and I can now finally relax about it. (A little.)

If you want to see them, scroll down in the sidebar to where it says “Recent Posts/ Comments/ Archives.” Click Archives. There they are! You can also search for posts in the archives with the handy Search box at the top right of the blog. Which works waaaay better than the search box at my old blog.

When I’m back from my Minnesota trip, I’m going to start working on (a) getting the old blog to redirect to the new one, and (b) getting the best and hottest posts listed in my sidebar, so newcomers to the blog can browse them more easily. And I’ll probably start linking to the cool stuff from the archives, so newcomers to this blog can become familiar with it. For now, I’m just going to sit back and cry tears of happiness and relief. I can haz archives! Yay!

I have to express my intense gratitude to fellow Freethought Blogger Jason Thibeault, at Lousy Canuck, for making this happen. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that atheists have no sense of community or compassion. I owe him big time. Go visit his blog, and tell him Thank You.

“The Ledge”: Does Atheism Have Its “Brokeback Mountain”?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet. “The Ledge” is available now through On Demand and through online streaming from SundanceNow. It opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles this Friday, July 8.

Ledge still A young man walks toward the ledge of a tall building. He is clearly filled with trepidation and even terror; at the same time, he has an equally clear air of purpose and resolve. That resolve: To jump.

It soon comes out that the man is an atheist. And the audience’s first thought might be, “Oh, right. Atheism — depressing, joyless, no sense of meaning or life’s value. Why wouldn’t he just kill himself?” But the story unfolds in places that are miles away from any such predictable path. Far from being depressed or joyless, the potential jumper, Gavin (Charlie Hunnam), has a singular joie de vivre. Far from having no meaning, his life is filled with compassion and intense moments of connection, both large and small. And his suicide attempt is not, as it turns out, a result of his seeing life as valueless and meaningless. It is, instead, an expression of his deep sense of how precious life is.

For reasons I can’t tell you without giving away the ending.

Ledge-poster Let’s get this out of the way right at the start: I enjoyed the heck out of “The Ledge,” and am recommending it heartily to pretty much everyone. Atheists, believers who are curious about atheists, people who just like good movies — I recommend “The Ledge” to all of you. Written and directed by Matthew Chapman (author of Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir and 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, Oxycontin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania, as well as Charles Darwin’s great-grandson), “The Ledge” is smart, riveting, complex, emotionally engaging, visually gorgeous… and best of all, almost entirely unpredictable. Its characters are, well, human — likable, aggravating, tough, loving, damaged — and the story is unpredictable in exactly the ways that human beings are unpredictable. It’s not a perfect film — I’ll get to that in a tic — but its imperfections are ten times more compelling than most of the boilerplate crap regularly churned out by the Hollywood machinery. (The movie is available now through On Demand and through online streaming from SundanceNow; it opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on July 8.)

It’s hard to summarize the plot of “The Ledge” without giving too much away. And I’d truly hate to do that. Again, so much of what’s good about this movie is its unpredictability, and I’d hate to take away the pleasure of seeing its surprises unfold. So I’ll do my best to explain without spoiling. Soon after Gavin climbs onto on the ledge, he’s confronted by a police officer, Hollis (Terrence Howard), who tries to talk him down. And as Hollis gets Gavin to tell him why he’s on the ledge, we see the strange story of the events that led him out there.

Ledge 2 It’s a story of sex, love, revenge, and religion. A thriller, of sorts. Gavin meets an attractive new neighbor, Shana (Liv Tyler): a sweet, pensive, buttoned-down young woman married to an intense Christian extremist, Joe (Patrick Wilson). Joe’s genuine devotion to Shana shows up in the form of paternalism and possessiveness… and his genuine devotion to God shows up in the form of close-mindedness and homophobic bigotry. So Gavin begins a scheme to liberate Shana away from Joe and into his own bed: partly out of lust, partly out of compassion, and partly out of pissy hostility towards Joe and his religion. But what starts as a casual, almost light-hearted game becomes intensely real — as Gavin and Shana’s connection grows stronger, as Shana’s dilemma becomes more vivid, and as Joe’s insecurity — about both Shana and his own religious faith — becomes increasingly volatile.

Gavin is the central character here. And in the pantheon of movie characters, he is both one of the more distinctive and one of the more instantly recognizable that I’ve seen in a while. As his story unfolded, I kept wondering, “Where is he going with this? What makes him tick? What on earth is he going to do next?” And at the same time, I kept thinking, “Oh, my lack of God — I know this guy.” Passionate, funny, combative, compassionate, way too quick with a snarky barb, equally quick to apologize and admit that he’s an asshole, tender-hearted, quick-witted, competitive, impulsive, hard-assed, firmly realistic, fervently idealistic… I know this guy. I see dozens of people like him on atheist forums every day. Heck — I’m more than a little like him myself. It’s something I’ve said many times: To make characters that an audience can identify with, you don’t make them generic and lowest- common- denominator. You make them personal. You make them quirky, complex, mixed-up, unique. You make them human. Humans are what other humans identify with… and writer/ director Chapman has done that in trumps with Gavin.

Ledge 3 And he’s done it with the rest of the characters in “The Ledge” as well. This is a story of heroism and villainy… but it isn’t a story of cartoon heroes and villains. The villain of the piece, Joe, is almost as complex and nuanced as Gavin. The movie is clearly taking Gavin’s side, but it goes out of its way to show where Joe’s religious extremism comes from and why he clings to it so strongly, and whenever he came on screen, I found myself feeling an uneasy blend of compassion and revulsion. The woman caught in the middle, Shana, has a quiet, compelling strength peering out from her apparent meekness. I sometimes found her to be frustratingly passive — it would have been nice if the main female character actually made some stuff happen and hadn’t primarily been the prize in the game played between two men — but her few moments of real choice have a thoughtful, carefully- considered gravitas, offering a dramatic contrast to Gavin’s impulsive, often blundering willfulness. Hollis, the detective trying to talk Gavin down from the ledge, is a good man having a very, very bad day. The crisis with Gavin coincides with one of the worst personal crises of his own life, and he juggles both with a mix of calm and despair, morality and rage, compassion and bewilderment, a strong man being shaken to his core. In many ways, he’s the foundation the film is built on, and I don’t think it’s an accident that the movie opens and closes on him and his story.

And the scenes between Gavin and his best friend/ roommate, Chris (Christopher Gorham), are among the most authentic of the entire movie. The way the two friends keep touching on the subject of religion, and then stepping back from it because they know they can’t talk about it without it causing a rift… it felt like a hand cupping my heart and then twisting, just a little. I know that. I’ve lived that. It’s one of the saddest, hardest things about my friendships with believers: it’s this hugely important issue, for me and for them, and there’s no way to talk about it seriously without it starting a fight. And so it is with Gavin and Chris. They show their love for each other, not by pushing forward on an intensely personal matter, but by carefully stepping around it. It made me want to cry… more than any of the characters’ tragic histories or romantic dramas. (And yes — the gay best friend/ roommate gets to have a love life, and even a sex life. Praise Jebus.)

There are places, I’ll admit, where the dialogue gets a little… not false, exactly, but stilted. In particular, the conversations about religion often play like a bit like a comment thread in an atheist blog. An exchange of abstract ideas, rather than a personal conversation. But on the occasions when it does that, it pulls back into the human realm very quickly. And even though these debates are so absurdly familiar to me I could probably recite them in my sleep — “The problem of suffering! The argument from locality! The utility defense!” — I have to acknowledge that this probably won’t be true for much of the audience. If you don’t spend the bulk of your professional life hanging around the atheist blogosphere, the ideas and arguments in “The Ledge” about religion and atheism may be very new indeed. Unsettling. Emotionally intense. Possibly even mind-blowing.

Brokeback-mountain The producers of “The Ledge” are pitching it as atheism’s “Brokeback Mountain.” And while I think that’s something of an exaggeration, I don’t think it’s much of one. “The Ledge” is an intensely personal film that explores broad social questions on a private, human scale. It has an unapologetic viewpoint on the issues in question, without shying away from the complexities and sorrows and thorny, unanswerable questions they raise. It makes the marginalized character likeable and heroic, and at the same time lets him be flawed and troubled and often kind of a jerk. The parallels are hard to ignore.

I’m not quite ready to call this the atheist “Brokeback Mountain,” though. It’s an excellent movie, and it’s an entirely unique movie; but it’s not the nearly flawless work of genius that “Brokeback Mountain” was. The flaws I’ve already mentioned aren’t the only ones. The movie is more than willing to let Gavin be troubled and morally imperfect — but when it comes to the fact that Shana is not just his married neighbor but his employee, and that seducing her is sexual harassment, it shrugs and looks the other way. On a related note: I’m really, really, irritated that, in 2011, thoughtful, independent, culturally sensitive filmmakers are still making films that fail the Bechdel Test. (A failure that’s even more troubling here, given the main female character’s passivity, and her role primarily as the pawn in the two men’s game.) And the tragedies in the main characters’ pasts seem more than a little forced, a needlessly melodramatic way of gaining the audience’s sympathy. (The sad sex work history particularly got up my nose. Can we please knock it off with that particular stereotype, folks?)

So no. I don’t know if “The Ledge” is atheism’s “Brokeback Mountain.” But you know what? I don’t know if atheism needs a “Brokeback Mountain.” Atheism hasn’t yet had a “Children’s Hour,” or a “Cabaret,” or a “Philadelphia.” Hell, atheism hasn’t even had a “Hairspray.” I can certainly think of atheist characters in mainstream American films — mostly amoral, cynical, depressed, emotionally clueless, emotionally distant, or a combination of the above. But I can think of damn few atheist film characters who were likeable, sympathetic, and even heroic. And I can’t think of a single mainstream film that was not only about an atheist, but that was about atheism. I can’t think of a single mainstream film before this one that was a serious attempt to convey the reality of atheists’ experience.

Ledge 1 “The Ledge” isn’t atheism’s “Brokeback Mountain.” “Brokeback Mountain” was the result of decades of activism and consciousness- raising — about LGBT people in general, and about media depictions of LGBT people in particular. “The Ledge” isn’t that. It isn’t the culmination of a decades-long cinematic conversation about atheism.

It’s the beginning of it.

And that might be even more important.

“The Ledge”. Starring Charlie Hunnam, Liv Tyler, Patrick Wilson, Terrence Howard, and Christopher Gorham. Produced by Mark Damon and Michael Mailer. Written and directed by Matthew Chapman. IFC Films. Unrated.

Sex, Love, Revenge … and Atheism? Finally, a Big New Film That Shows Non-Belief in a Positive Light

“The Ledge” is smart, riveting, complex, emotionally engaging, visually gorgeous… and best of all, almost entirely unpredictable.

Ledge still A young man walks toward the ledge of a tall building. He is clearly filled with trepidation and even terror; at the same time, he has an equally clear air of purpose and resolve. That resolve: To jump.

It soon comes out that the man is an atheist. And the audience’s first thought might be, “Oh, right. Atheism — depressing, joyless, no sense of meaning or life’s value. Why wouldn’t he just kill himself?” But the story unfolds in places that are miles away from any such predictable path. Far from being depressed or joyless, the potential jumper, Gavin (Charlie Hunnam), has a singular joie de vivre. Far from having no meaning, his life is filled with compassion and intense moments of connection, both large and small. And his suicide attempt is not, as it turns out, a result of his seeing life as valueless and meaningless. It is, instead, an expression of his deep sense of how precious life is.

For reasons I can’t tell you without giving away the ending.

Ledge-poster Let’s get this out of the way right at the start: I enjoyed the heck out of “The Ledge,” and am recommending it heartily to pretty much everyone. Atheists, believers who are curious about atheists, people who just like good movies — I recommend “The Ledge” to all of you. Written and directed by Matthew Chapman (author of Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir and 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, Oxycontin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania, as well as Charles Darwin’s great-grandson), “The Ledge” is smart, riveting, complex, emotionally engaging, visually gorgeous… and best of all, almost entirely unpredictable. Its characters are, well, human — likable, aggravating, tough, loving, damaged — and the story is unpredictable in exactly the ways that human beings are unpredictable. It’s not a perfect film — I’ll get to that in a tic — but its imperfections are ten times more compelling than most of the boilerplate crap regularly churned out by the Hollywood machinery.

*

Thus begins my review for AlterNet of the new atheist feature film, “The Ledge”: Sex, Love, Revenge … and Atheism? Finally, a Big New Film That Shows Non-Belief in a Positive Light. To find out more about what made this movie so compelling, what made it flawed, and whether I think it really is atheism’s “Brokeback Mountain” (as its producers have been pitching it), read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

The People I’ve Slept With

This piece was originally published on CarnalNation. The movie is now available on DVD.

People ive slept with 1A young woman is talking to her newborn baby.

“I love sex,” she says. “And some people thought it was a bad thing. But I’ve learned that a slut is just a woman with the morals of a man.”

Sudden, screeching rewind back in time, slightly less than nine months. The free-spirited adventurer in question, Angela (Karin Anna Cheung), has just learned that one of her adventures has resulted in an embryo. She considers getting an abortion — her gay best friend, Gabriel (Wilson Cruz) practically demands it — but her conservative sister Juliet (Lynn Chen) pressures/ fearmongers/ persuades her that her life would be better if she settled down to a normal, stable family life. “Settle down,” she exhorts. “Grow up, and be happy for once.” Somehow neglecting to notice that Angela is already pretty darned happy. And definitely neglecting to notice that Angela is making her own conscious decisions about her own life… pretty much the textbook definition of being grown up.

People ive slept with 7 So Angela decides to keep the baby… and embarks on a comical search to figure out which of her many adventuring partners is the father. It’s a challenge: Angela’s partners are sufficient enough in number that she keeps track of them through what she calls “baseball cards,” Polaroids with personal stats scrawled on the back. But she narrows the possibilities down to the five men she didn’t use birth control with — and goes through an assortment of wacky hijinks to collect their DNA for paternity tests. Her heart is pulling her in one direction — toward Jefferson (Archie Kao), the sweetheart labeled on her baseball card as “Mystery Man” — but she’s bound and determined that she’s going to have a normal married life, which means the man she marries should bloody well be the man she happened to conceive with. Regardless of whether she actually, you know, likes him, and wants to spend the rest of her life with him.

Yes, I know. It’s another “shmashortion” movie, in which a woman who under any other circumstances would be off to Planned Parenthood in a nanosecond for an abortion mysteriously decides to keep the baby… because if she didn’t, it’d be a fifteen minute movie. It’s an annoying pattern. Noted. Annoyed. Let’s move on.

Because “The People I’ve Slept With” is, in fact, a movie worth moving on to. It’s an odd duck: a mutant offspring of a smart, quirky, genuinely funny character study/ comedy of errors, and a sloppy, under-written jumble of cliches and careless implausibility. But the good stuff is sufficiently good — and sufficiently uncommon — to make it well worth a look.

Especially for anyone interested in movie depictions of unconventional sex.

People ive slept with 3 For starters, it’s delightful to see a woman in a movie have casual sex, with a wide assortment of partners of both genders, in a wide assortment of styles and variations… and be pretty much fine with it. And it’s a striking reminder of how rare this is. (Samantha in the increasingly revolting “Sex and the City” franchise is pretty much all we’ve got. Loki help us all.)

It’s true that much of the movie involves Angela’s freakout about her free-form life, and her cockamamie, half-assed pursuit of the American Dream, Heteronormative Style. But throughout the course of her cockamamie freakout, it’s made eminently clear that… well, that it’s a cockamamie freakout. The source of the humor isn’t that she’s struggling to find her way to the Right and True Path while being comically sidetracked into her old habits. The source of the humor is that she’s struggling to find her way to a path that’s laughably wrong for her. And in the end — and no, it’s not a spoiler, they give it away in the first five minutes — her salvation comes, not by accepting conventionality, but by embracing unconventionality. Especially in how she arranges her new family.

And there are oodles of lovely, funny, wonderfully refreshing sexual touches generously sprinkled throughout the movie. I love that the slutty, quirky, free-spirited Angela is her father’s favorite, and her normal, buttoned-down sister Juliet is the one he worries about and feels alienated from. It shatters so many stereotypes: about Asian families in particular, and about all families in general. I love how casually multicultural the movie is, and how sex not only with lots of different partners but with partners of lots of different races is treated as No Big Deal. I love how casually Angela’s bisexuality is revealed: her female partners are introduced in the litany of baseball cards right alongside the male ones, and while they’re less frequent than the guys, they’re shuffled into the pack as equals, and treated with the same cheerful, breezy affection.

People ive slept with 6 And I love, love, love that Gabriel, Angela’s Gay Best Friend, has not just a life of his own, but a sex life of his own. The Gay Best Friend is quickly becoming one of the most annoying movie tropes in town: yes, yes, positive gay visibility in media, it’s all very nice indeed, but when gay people are constantly relegated to the sidelines of the real story, there solely to provide support and wisdom and a shoulder to cry on for the people who really count, and kept carefully neutered to keep them likeable and safe, it starts to wear a bit thin. But not here. In “The People I’ve Slept With,” the Gay Best Friend gets to have a storyline of his own. And he gets to have sex. And love. And romantic complications. He’s not the main character — this is Angela’s story, not Gabriel’s — but he clearly has a rich, complicated, fully sexual life of his own. A life that folds into Angela’s as an equal, instead of being subsumed by it as a sidekick.

People iveslept with 5 All of which made me desperately wish this were a better movie. It comes so close. So many of the characters are rich and unpredictable and human… and yet so many others are one-note caricatures. So much of the emotion is nuanced and authentic… and yet so much of it is mawkish and hackneyed. So much of the story is natural and believable… and yet so very, very much of it is labored and fake, with plot twists that strain credibility, taking place not because that’s what the characters would do, not because any living human being would ever do anything remotely like that, but because the story has to move on to the next bit. I hate how Nice-But-Boring-Guy turns into a hysterical stalker overnight when he thinks he’s going to be a father… and I truly hate how his stalking is played for laughs. I hate how a major breakup near the end (I won’t tell you whose) is impossibly utopian, perfectly happy for all concerned, with no emotional complications or consequences, breezily dismissed so the train can keep pressing along to Happy Ending Land without further delay. I hate the sister who doesn’t care that her brother’s dead. And I hate, hate, hate that the entire plot hinges on Angela’s half-assed use of birth control. I know, I know — it’s like the “shmashortion” thing, there wouldn’t be a movie without the dumb plot device — but given how happy and self-aware she is in general about her sluthood, it just rings false.

And the whole movie is like that. The false notes are woven into the true ones, bouncing back and forth between thoughtfully funny character exploration and dumb screwball hijinks, so fast it makes your neck hurt trying to keep track. And it’s so unnecessary. The good movie is truly good — smart and quirky, inventive and funny, with a fresh approach to sexuality and a casually gutsy willingness to question tons of assumptions about it. It’s actually way more entertaining than the dumb, fake hijinks. I wish the filmmakers had either done another rewrite to work the dumb bits out of there… or trusted that the good movie didn’t need them.

People ive slept with 2 The People I’ve Slept With. Starring Karin Anna Cheung, Wilson Cruz, Archie Kao, James Shigeta, Lynn Chen, Rane Jameson, Tim Chiou, and Stacie Rippy. Written by Koji Steven Sakai. Directed by Quentin Lee. Produced by Steven Sakai, Stanley Yung, and Quentin Lee. People Pictures/ 408 Films Production. Unrated.

The Kids Are All Right

This review was originally published on CarnalNation. The movie is now available on DVD, and it received four Oscar nominations, including on for Best Picture.

The-Kids-Are-All-Right-2010-Movie-Poster Are queers just like everyone else?

Are queers just ordinary human beings, with the same hopes and fears and neuroses and dreams as everybody? Or are queers fundamentally different from straight people, with profoundly different ways of dealing with sex and gender and love and family?

It’s a question that shows up most dramatically in debates between assimilationists and separatists (and those of us on the spectrums in between). But it also shows up in the hearts and minds of queers — and straight people with queers in their lives — when we’re searching our souls in private about who we are and how we fit into the world.

And it’s a question explored in fascinating, funny, painful, complicated, and almost excruciatingly human detail in the brilliant new film, “The Kids Are All Right.”

Along with a whole host of equally compelling questions about sex, humanity, and selfhood…. and how they intertwine.

Kids are all right 1 Directed by Lisa Cholodenko (“Laurel Canyon,” “High Art”), “The Kids Are All Right” stars Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as Nic and Jules, a long-term lesbian couple with two teenage kids: one on the verge of college, the other still in the depths of high school. Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) get curious about their anonymous sperm donor/ father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo): they look him up, meet him, and begin folding him into their family life.

Not- so- wacky hijinks ensue. Paul, an easygoing, live- for- the- moment restaurant owner and self-avowed non- team- player, is in a lot of ways a breath of fresh air for this family, and the things he has to offer are things each of them needs: independence and rebellion for Joni, a model for manhood other than “macho asshole” for Laser, a willingness to relinquish control and let things be for Nic, and for Jules… well, I’ll get to that in a minute, when I get to the spoilers. But the flip side of Paul’s easygoing, live- for- the- moment attitude is his self-absorption and irresponsibility, his blithe disregard for the effect he has on others. And the breath of fresh air he breathes into the family soon becomes a hurricane.

Kids-are-all-right_2 So what does this have to do with queerness? Well, one of the first things you notice about Nic and Jules is all the ways they’re like every other long- married couple. Of any sexual orientation. The casually deep intimacy and the dumb squabbles; the easy affection and the old, unresolved conflicts; the long history of things that never get said and the long history of things so well understood they don’t need to be said… all this will be instantly familiar to anybody who’s married. Or who knows people who are married. Which is to say, anybody.

Yet at the same time, Nic and Jules are very much a lesbian couple. At times to the point of being scary. The processing, the casual use of therapy-speak both to communicate and to score points, will have every lesbian couple in the audience hiding under the seats in embarrassed recognition. More positively, the two women’s ease with their bodies and with each other’s bodies, the complete comfort with which they see themselves as women while offhandedly rejecting almost every conventional image of femininity, will be instantly and delightfully familiar to anyone who’s hung around dykes for more than fifteen minutes. And of course, the crux of the story — the kids of the two moms looking up their sperm donor — hinges on the special circumstances of this being a queer family. As does the particular way that Hurricane Paul wreaks havoc on the family. (Again — more on that in a tic.)

So are Nic and Jules just like every other married couple? Or is their lesbian marriage fundamentally different from a straight marriage?

The_kids_are_allright 7 The answer — to both questions — is Yes. Yes, this is a marriage much like any marriage, a story almost any married couple will relate to. And at the same time: Yes, this is a lesbian marriage, deeply rooted in lesbian culture. Queers are human beings — we’re not frogs or barnacles, of course we have deep things in common with the rest of the human race. And at the same time: Queers are queers, part of a unique culture, with experiences and quirks that even the most queer-friendly straight people are never going to get.

But Nic and Jules are more than just another married couple. And they’re more than just a distinctly lesbian married couple.

They’re Nic and Jules.

Kids-are-all-right-6 “The Kids Are All Right” is one of the most intensely human movies I’ve seen in a long time. The characters feel completely real, and completely individual, as real and individual as anyone I might meet at a party and strike up a conversation with. They are flawed and powerful, sympathetic and aggravating, thoughtful and selfish, careless and loving, disturbing and funny, with good sides and bad sides that are deeply intertwined flip-sides of one another. The characters in this movie are unique. And their marriage is unique.

Which, paradoxically, is a huge part of what makes the movie resonate so strongly. This isn’t a movie about Marriage, or about Lesbian Marriage. It’s a movie about one particular marriage, and one particular family. And that uniqueness, the humanity shown with such rawness it’s sometimes painful to watch, is what makes these characters feel so intensely familiar. It’s something I’ve often said about fiction: To make a story people can identify with, don’t make it generic. Make it personal. Making it personal is what makes it true.

Kids.Are.All.Right 12 There’s a complaint I’m beginning to see about this movie, especially from queers. (And this is where the spoiler I’ve been alluding to comes in. Spoiler alert — now!) The major plot turn in “The Kids Are All Right” happens when Jules starts doing some landscaping work for Paul, and they wind up having an affair. With disastrous effects: not only on Nic and Jules’ marriage, but on the kids’ blossoming relationship with their sperm donor/ dad. This turn of events has some queer viewers angry, or at least annoyed: they’re complaining that historically, way too many movies about lesbians end up with one of them sleeping with a man (and in many cases, being “cured” thereby). And they’re baffled as to why this movie — directed and co-written by a lesbian and so clearly created from a lesbian perspective — would perpetuate this tired old stereotype.

Kidsareallright 11 Sorry, but I’m not buying it. I’m usually happy to join a Celluloid Closet dogpile and rant at a movie for perpetuating stereotypes about queers. But in this case, I think it’s wildly inappropriate. For one thing, Jules sleeping with Paul isn’t portrayed as the lesbian being “cured” of her lesbianism. Not even a little. It’s portrayed as a freaking tragedy that comes close to demolishing a family. If anything, this movie gives a very queer twist on that old queer-bashing trope. Jules “experiments” with a man to fill a need she isn’t getting from her marriage — not a need for maleness, but a need for appreciation, and for spontaneity, and for a life whose parameters aren’t set by her hyper-organized, control-freak wife. But in the end, she turns her back on this disruptive influence, and begins working to repair her marriage and restore what she can of her normal, stable family life. A family life that, in this case, is lesbian.

And maybe more to the point: This movie isn’t about lesbians.

It’s about Nic and Jules.

I’ve been saying for years that what queer audiences (and straight ones, for that matter) need from queer movie characters isn’t positive role models. What we need is queer characters who are as human and complex and believable as the straight ones.

The-kids-are-all-right-9 Which is exactly what “The Kids Are All Right” gives us. The creators of this film aren’t obligated to single-handedly correct every dumb stereotype about lesbians in the history of film. They’re obligated to present lesbians as real, plausible, multi-faceted human beings. Which is exactly what they did. There are a lot of things you can say about Jules sleeping with Paul: it was stupid, it was heartbreaking, it was understandable, it was fucked-up beyond belief. But it was also — and most importantly — entirely believable. There was no part of me that thought, “There’s no way she would do that.” In fact, I saw it coming a mile away. It was completely in character.

A flawed, powerful, sympathetic, aggravating, thoughtful, selfish, careless, loving, disturbing, funny, completely human character.

And when a film gives me that, I can’t ask for anything more.

Kids-are-all-right_4 I could go on about this movie for days. There’s so much here that’s fascinating and compelling — not just about queerness, but about sex generally — that I haven’t even touched on. I’m tempted to write a whole other review of it as soon as I finish this one: one that explores the naturalness with which this movie explores sex, and the balance it strikes between awkwardness and ease. I’d love to write a whole other review getting into Nic and Jules’ sex life: the vibrator in the nightstand, the gay male porn, the loving attempts to kindle passion and the stupid ways that perfectionism mucks it up. I’d love to write a whole other review getting into how uncomfortable Nic and Jules are with their son’s sexuality, teasing out how much of it is discomfort with straight maleness (a fact they’re in almost comic denial of), and how much is just parental discomfort with their kid’s sexuality and their sense of loss over him growing up. I’d love to write a whole other review getting into teenage sexuality: the teenagers who are overly confident and glib about sex, and the ones who are wigged out by it and trying to hold it at arm’s length. I’d love to write a whole other review about how this movie sees the power of sex: the power it has to blow things up, and the power it has to blow things open. I’d love to write a whole other review getting into how casual the characters try to be — and totally fail to be — about the word “sperm.”

But this review is already too long as it is. So I’ll leave it at this: This movie rocks. It is among the best I’ve seen this year, possibly this decade. It is one of the smartest, realest, most original, most compelling, and most human movies I’ve seen in a good long time. It is one of those movies you’ll be thinking about for days after you see it, and wanting to talk about with everyone you know. If you care about queerness, about sex, or just about seriously good films, stop whatever you’re doing, and immediately put it at the top of your To See list.

The Kids Are All Right. Starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, and Josh Hutcherson. Written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Focus Features. Rated R.