The Favorite Child

A Psychologist Explores Family Dynamics

"The Kids Are All Right" Gets It Just Right

This popular movie sensitively portrays the nuances of family life.

The Kids Are All Right, a popular summer movie, tells the story of a sister and brother who make contact with their father, whom they only knew as "the sperm donor." But it is more than a movie about a family of this decade, a lesbian couple and their kids. It is a movie that captures, with respect and sensitivity, the hard work required to keep marriages alive, to raise children, and for both children and adults to meet life's challenges.

Nic and Jules, the "moms" have been committed partners for at least 20 years. They met when Nic, a doctor, was the resident on-call, and Jules, an architecture student, was a patient who had a strange problem with her tongue. Nic took charge and made Jules feel safe, and her problem went away. This initial meeting defined the relationship they eventually lived out: Nic, the cool, competent partner, who took charge and ran the show; and Jules, the warmer, more sensitive but slightly hysterical partner, who was eager to please. Nic financially supported the family while Jules stayed home and looked after the kids, an arrangement that, on the surface, worked for both.

The movie takes place during the summer after Joni, their daughter, graduated from high school and prepares to leave home for college. Joni's imminent departure stimulates emotional issues for each parent, which is complicated by Joni's having secretly made contact with Paul, the man whose sperm each of her moms used in their respective pregnancies and whose identity had been unknown. Joni is the biological child of Nic and her brother, Laser, is the biological child of Jules.

Nic and Jules, like many parents, put their energies in to raising their children, and they let their marriage coast. Over the years, the tension in their relationship grew, and their physical intimacy appeared to wane. Now, this tension is brought to the surface by Joni's pending departure and Paul's unexpected presence. The resentment Jules and Nic have for one another is obvious to both Joni and Laser. Like the kids, Jules resents Nic's criticalness; her having something corrective to say about most things; and her general need to be in control. And the kids, along with Nic, are critical of Jules' dependence on Nic, her need for approval, and her lack of personal goals.

While Nic and Jules love both their children, Nic's attachment to Joni, her biological child, is stronger than to Laser, and Jules attachment to Laser, her biological child, is stronger than to Joni. In their attachments, we witness the power of biology in influencing personality: Joni, emulating Nic, is an outstanding student, excelling in science, and driven to succeed. Laser, emulating Jules, is a free spirit, sensitive and loving, but without goals and not living up to his potential. Nic understands Joni and is more accepting of her than she is of Laser while Jules better understands Laser and is more accepting of him. Preferential treatment flows from this underlying understanding.

The Kids Are All Right illuminates the subtle displays of favoritism - the smiles, nods, and acceptance of questionable behaviors. Each parent views their partner's relationship with their preferred child more realistically than does the enmeshed parent. Jules counsels Nic to be less demanding of Joni who is already driven to meet high standards, and Nic counsels Jules to be more demanding of Laser who struggles with boundaries and authority. While each partner respects the balance provided by the other, in the brief time period covered by the movie, neither parent succeeds in modifying her behavior.

Joni, as the obedient daughter who played by the rules, is the child who ultimately breaks the family's major rule - silence regarding the sperm donor. In having done so, Joni, who at the beginning of the movie is portrayed as emotionally young, pushes ahead with the fundamental work of adolescence - to actively forge an identity separate from her parents. In challenging her mothers and seeking contact with Paul, Joni deliberately sets in to action events in which she is forced to make her own decisions and act independently. These are necessaray psychological skills if she is to succeed when living on her own at college. Interestingly, and not surprisingly, it was Nic, the parent to whom Joni is most attached, who is most upset that she made contact with Paul.

The emotional growth of the three major adults portrayed in The Kids Are All Right, Nic, Jules, and Paul, seems to have been stunted from at least the time when Paul sold his sperm to the sperm-bank, and Nic and Jules were inseminated. The movie illustrates the personal consequences of such stagnation. While loving each other, Nic and Jules are both lonely in their marriage. Nic is portrayed as being cut off from her emotions, turning to wine and work for expression. Jules, more sensitive than Nic, is aware of the loneliness, and she is unsuccessful in altering the marriage or in rekindling the sexual spark. Ultimately Jules has an affair. Paul has lived a life void of closeness and intimacy. The status quo in each of their the lives is upset by the tension generated by the coming together of Nic, Jules, Paul, Joni, and Laser.

The Kids Are All Right may not be a great movie technically. The edits are sometimes abrupt and the relationships between some of the characters, especially Paul and Joni, and Paul and Jules, develop too quickly. But, the movie is a treasure. It portrays the nuances of family life. Families are what they are, made up of adults and children, all with their own personalities and attachments, needs and desires. All doing the best they can. The movie is far better than All Right.

 

Dr. Ellen Weber Libby, a clinical psychologist, is a psychotherapist in Washington, DC, and is the author of The Favorite Child (January 2010.)

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