Friday, May 29, 2015

Birthday Take: Annette Benning in "The Kids Are All Right" (2010)

Annette Benning in The Kids Are All Right
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Annette Benning
Born: May 29 1958 (57)
Nomination: Best Actress - The Kids Are All Right (nominated) as Nic

The Take

With the Academy constantly coming under fire for their accurate portrayal of society through nominees, it becomes more immediately clear what they have done right and wrong for some time now. While 2014's nominees marked one of the more controversial turns, it is actually a sore thumb among the actually progressive views of the Academy. Very few times were as prominent as in 2010 when they recognized the LGBT community with the family drama The Kids Are All Right. It was a film that may have not seemed all that impressive as a story, but actually had a lot of interesting things in regards to normalizing a lesbian couple raising a family. It broke down the taboos that have long been misunderstood by mainstream America and created one of the most homely dramas of that year.

Among the reasons that the film worked was the lesbian couple in question, played by Annette Benning and Juliette Moore. While the latter wasn't nominated, Benning received acclaim for her roles as the dominant figure in the relationship. Providing a series of memorable moments from including why lesbians watch gay male porn, the film managed to make the discovery of the children's surrogate father and moving on to college into heartbreaking and beautiful moments. This could largely be thanked to the reliable director Lisa Cholodenko, who throws the attention to the performances and highlights the nuanced moments that make us care about humanity. 

Most of all, it doesn't get wrapped up in the taboos in an offensive or dated way. By normalizing it, it manages to remove anything that would make the lesbian relationship seem noteworthy. It is sweet and in some respects a solid domestic drama revealing that there's a lot of similarity between straight and gay culture than one would expect. It even goes so far to explore this through the children's perspectives, which are occasionally just as flawed as mainstream society, but also in some respects love their parents because of who they are. It may seem a little too bland without any other big substance thrown in. However, it does work well enough at the hands of Cholodenko and it makes perfect sense why it ended up making a splash at the Oscars.

Benning by this point was a professional, having been nominated a total of four times and being featured in American Beauty. As the assured figurehead of the family, she has to sacrifice the most and face a conflicted past with surrogate father played by Mark Ruffalo. It is the type of role that is easy bait for the Oscars, but is able to be noteworthy when played with enough assurance. While Cholodenko's film was always the underdog thanks to its rather simple story, it still managed to feature a lot of charm and humor in between normalizing gay culture. It may not be the most memorable from that year, which also featured The Social Network and The Fighter, but it did prove that the Academy could recognize progressive film making when they were met with a quality entry. 

While there's still the challenge of getting an LGBT-themed film to win Best Picture, it is nice to know that there's at least a strong presence that has been developing in the past decade. While some would paint gay activists as extraordinary heroes, there's a certain facet of culture that simply exists in their own bubble of happiness. They just want to be recognized as normal. With The Kids Are All Right, Cholodenko managed to turn gay culture into an average family in ways that weren't insulting or pandering. What was left was a film full of great performances and a sign of a positive shift in the culture. Has there been as much of a change since? Not really, even if gay culture has been more accepted. However, it is nice to know that there are those out there who recognize that gay culture can have interesting stories that don't rely solely on them being gay. They can just be human, and that's why The Kids Are All Right is a noteworthy film.

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