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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Fidelity in Movies, vis a vis The Kids Are All Right

Yesterday, I saw a discussion of the ten nominees for Best Picture which took the unexpected turn of criticizing the plot of one of the nominees, The Kids Are All Right. The movie, which centers on a rocky period in the family of two married lesbians raising children they conceived through artificial insemination, was being criticized by an actual lesbian for its plot, which I will spoil in my next sentence. Julieanne Moore’s character, feeling unloved and unwanted by her partner, played by Annette Bening, begins an adulterous relationship with the biological father of her children, Mark Ruffalo.

This woman was criticizing the movie on this basis. As a lesbian, she said, it offended her that this movie depicted her orientation as so easily fungible. She stated that unsupportive relatives might be convinced by such a movie that there was still hope she could “switch” back to the right team, as it were. She had not seen the movie, only read the plot online, and refused to see it on this basis.

I understand that in a minority community, especially one that has been denied a lot in mainstream society for a long time, this is not something to scoff at. These are real concerns to this woman and, I’m guessing, a lot of others. Still I think it is inherently unfair to demand that any movie correspond with your worldview, and to judge it poorly for not doing so seems short-sighted.

No movie owes its fidelity to your experience, or even, if one can be said to exist, to the general experience of a whole community. Its fidelity is owed wholly to the characters. Whether their actions would be the ones you would undertake, or most people would undertake, is irrelevant. The question is whether the character, given what we have been shown of them, would undertake such action. I believe that this question is debatable in regards to Ms. Moore’s character’s affair, but in my own mind I accepted it as plausible, if legitimately surprising. The movie took time to depict the stasis she was experiencing in her marriage, her desperate need for affection, and her state of confusion as to her own behavior.

It seems as though we only bring our own experiences to bear on fictional characters in certain genres. The Kids Are All Right is billed as a family comedy, and so some people have rigid expectations for what to expect. But try to carry this to its farcical conclusion. Most websites don’t make their operators billions, so therefore, no Social Network? Most teenagers don’t chase after their meth-maker father, or seek to avenge a father’s death in the company of a one-eyed U.S. Marshal? Well, I guess that eliminates Winter’s Bone and True Grit.

Movies are meant for telling extraordinary stories, no matter what their genre. If you can’t suspend your disbelief to allow for coincidence, improbability, or unlikely behavior, you are not going to find them very rewarding.

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