Movies: The Hunter ***
(16, general release)
Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids are All Right has earned rave reviews in the US and has been widely tipped for Oscar nominations. And while cynics might say that its right-on subject matter is deliberately Oscar-friendly, there's a lot more to this film than gay sensationalism.
In fact, Cholodenko sets out to insist on the ordinariness of the gay and lesbian experience, while simultaneously highlighting some of the unique dilemmas that same-sex couples can face.
For instance, procreation. Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a married lesbian couple who live in an affluent suburban Californian setting with their two teenage children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). They each gave birth to one of these children using sperm from the same anonymous donor, and while Nic is a busy hospital doctor, Jules has adopted the stay-at-home mom role. They seem the perfect alternative family unit, until Laser decides he'd like to meet his dad.
As Laser's only 15, he doesn't yet have the right to demand the identity of the anonymous donor, but Joni, who's 18, does. So she reluctantly contacts the agency on her brother's behalf, but behind their mothers' backs.
The donor turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a motorcycle-riding restaurateur and ladies' man who's so laid back you feel like checking for a pulse. Crucially, for the story's sake, Paul is an ageing commitment phobe with no family of his own, which makes him vulnerable to the advances of these (from his perspective) instant children.
He and the kids quickly hit it off: they're impressed by his eco-friendly restaurant and breathtaking black girlfriend, but also by the novelty that this potential parent is a man. Pretty soon word of all this reaches "moms", and while Jules does her best to respond in a positive way to this new and unexpected development, Nic instantly becomes hostile and threatened. This is partly because she's a prissy and domineering control freak, but also because she suspects Paul's motives, and she turns out to be right.
When Paul comes over to lunch with the family and hears that Jules is trying to start her own landscaping business, he hires her to come over and tame his large back garden. But once on site an attraction between them becomes obvious, and they begin a sexual affair. This threatens not just Paul's budding relationship with his children but also the wellbeing of the entire family.
So far as I can gather, the story of Nic and Jules is mirrored to some extent by the director's own, and I began watching this film fearing that one was about to be bombarded by stifling doses of mawkish political correctness.
There is the odd whiff of sapphic sanctimoniousness early on, but this merely turns out to be pride before a fall in a film that seems determined to point out that the problems faced by a lesbian couple are depressingly familiar.
In fact, Cholodenko questions Nic and Jules' lifestyle and choices every bit as much as she validates them, and in particular she explores the reality of children made by anonymous sperm and raised in an entirely man-free atmosphere.
Moore is very good as the flaky and histrionic but basically sweet Jules, Hutcherson and Wasikowska are excellent as the kids, and I've never seen Ruffalo deliver a bad performance.
But it's Ms Bening who takes most of the risks here, stripping down her glamour to play the film's least likeable, but ultimately most dependable character.