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The Unreal World: 'The Kids Are All Right'

The premise of finding a sperm donor father and the possibility of a heterosexual affair outside a lesbian relationship are shown realistically.

March 14, 2011|Marc Siegel | The Unreal World
  • In "The Kids Are All Right," the sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) meets his son (Josh Hutcherson) when the boy's 15.
In "The Kids Are All Right," the sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) meets… (Suzanne Tennerv / Focus…)

The Premise

Dr. Nicole Allgood (Annette Bening) and her partner, Jules (Julianne Moore), have taken a non-traditional route to family life. The couple met in the ER when Nic, who is now an attending gynecologist, was a resident at UCLA and Jules was a patient with facial numbness. They became lovers, and when they decided to have children they went to a sperm bank, and each gave birth to a child using the same sperm donor.

Flash forward several years, and their son, Laser (Josh Hutcherson), now 15, decides he wants to meet his biological father. His 18-year-old half-sister, Joni Allgood (Mia Wasikowska) contacts the sperm bank, which in turn contacts Paul Hatfield (Mark Ruffalo), the kids' biological father.

Paul agrees to meet his offspring. The group gets along well, and Paul soon begins to take on some fathering roles. In a fateful move, he also hires Jules to landscape his backyard. Jules is attracted to Paul — and vice versa — and they soon have sex. The affair is ultimately discovered, followed by feelings of hurt and betrayal. Jules tries to explain what happened to Nic. "I've felt so far away from you lately," she says. Nic asks her if she is now "straight," and Jules says no. In the end, the couple remains together as Joni goes off to college and Paul resumes his bachelor life.

The medical questions

Is it possible for a child to track his or her father through a sperm bank? And, psychologically speaking, how realistic are the family dramas and the sexual roles that unfold in the movie?

The reality

Sperm donor fathers can remain anonymous, says urologist Dr. Andrew McCullough, director of andrology at the Albany College of Medicine. But if a biological father agrees, many sperm banks will pass along his contact information to inquiring children once they reach the age of 18. Donors are required to sign away all parental rights, but if they want to get to know their kids, cook them meals or even have a carnal experience with their mother, there's no policy to stop them.

The transformation of an anonymous donor to an involved "daddy" is psychologically complex and involves the feelings of all the family members, says Dr. Virginia Sadock, clinical professor of psychiatry and director of the human sexuality program at New York University Langone Medical Center. Nurturing parents can feel threatened (as Nic does) or relieved (as Jules does). Children can, and often do, see it as an opportunity to choose sides, even to a point where one parental figure is seen as all good and another as all bad. When Laser and Joni latch on to Paul and become disapproving and distant from Nic, they're following a script that's been around for a long time.

As for the movie's romantic entanglements, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, people often have affairs and return to their long-term partner. And it's not that uncommon for gay men or women to be attracted to members of the opposite sex, if only briefly, says New York sex therapist Ian Kerner, founder of the popular therapy site GoodinBed.com. Just as many heterosexual people have occasional homosexual urges, homosexual people can be straight-curious, and if the right situation comes along, it can become more than just curiosity. Kerner adds that he has worked with many women who are gay but started out in heterosexual relationships and that it is not uncommon for a lesbian to continue to grapple with "issues of self-identity," as Jules does in the film.

Recovering from infidelity can be extremely difficult, Kerner says, but couples of any gender can often grow stronger as a result. "What's wonderful about 'The Kids Are All Right' is that it begins and ends with the reality and normalcy of stable gay relationships."

Siegel is an associate professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center.

marc@doctorsiegel.com

"The Kids Are All Right"

Focus Features, Gilbert Films

U.S. release, July 30, 2010

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