Suzanne Tenner/Focus Features
Mother Knows Best: Julianne Moore and Annette Bening star as beleaguered parents in the best-reviewed family film of the summer, The Kids Are All Right.
Mother Knows Best: Julianne Moore and Annette Bening star as beleaguered parents in the best-reviewed family film of the summer, The Kids Are All Right. Suzanne Tenner/Focus Features
During the summer, kids are out of school and parents have vacation time, so Hollywood always brings out lots of "family" films. This year, there's a difference: In addition to the usual family films, there are quite a few "alternative family" films.
It started back in the spring, with The Back-Up Plan: Jennifer Lopez wanted a baby but kept meeting Mr. Wrong, and finally decided to go the sperm-donor route. A few weeks later, Mother and Child served up interlocking stories about adoption — and then the floodgates opened.
By the time Labor Day rolls around, there will have been films about divorced dads, single moms, legal adoptions, emotional adoptions, family units created in vitro, by turkey baster and — in one really out there instance — by gene-splicing. That last, which is central to the sci-fi thriller Splice, results in a scientist-scientist-and-creature family that one of the creators calls "a miracle."
That miracle thankfully won't become a real-life possibility anytime soon. But the rest of the summer's rainbow coalition of family-creation stories arrives at a moment when America's idea of family seems more elastic than it once did. Hollywood, ever on the lookout for fresh sources of conflict and tension, is happy to exploit that fact.
Take the new comedy The Kids Are All Right, in which lesbian moms played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening are at once supportive and protective when they sense there's something their teenage son isn't telling them. Is he having a relationship? They say they'll be there for him. He says he is, with a guy named Paul, but as they ask about the circumstances, they get more and more worried. He's only seen Paul once, and under odd circumstances. Who is this guy, the moms wonder.
"Our sperm donor," their son tells them — and from the looks on their faces, he can tell this wasn't what they expected.
"Did you think I'm gay?" he sputters — which of course is exactly what they thought, and back a few years ago, Hollywood could've spun a whole plot line from that confusion. These days, it can be just a starting point, because Tinseltown is more comfortable with family sagas about clans that weren't formed by the traditional "mom and dad got together to make some kids" scenario. (Witness Despicable Me, with its orphans-adopting-a-supervillain plot.)
The Parent Trap: Coming soon in Hollywood's summer of sperm-donor comedies: Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston in The Switch — originally titled The Baster. (Watch the trailer at YouTube.)
The Parent Trap: Coming soon in Hollywood's summer of sperm-donor comedies: Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston in The Switch — originally titled The Baster. (Watch the trailer at YouTube.) Baster Productions
As unconventional as this and those other stories sound, they all reflect a central reality of American life. The nuclear family as we're accustomed to thinking of it has never been the universal experience in the U.S. Six in 10 children live with both biological parents — which means that 4 in 10 don't. And it's simply inconceivable that Hollywood could leave that many potential paying customers unrepresented on-screen.
Not that there was ever much danger of that. This summer's emphasis on nontraditional families is just a new twist on a literary tradition that goes back millennia: Think of Moses raised by Pharaoh's daughter; Hercules with his earthly mom and godly dad.
I remember thinking as a kid that when it came to the prospect of having an interesting life, I was at a distinct disadvantage. I had two entirely conventional parents, whereas cool fictional characters almost never did — Cinderella, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Peter Pan, Superman, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, each and every one an orphan. And they all had some sort of fascinating guardian they'd picked up along the way, intriguing siblings of a sort.
They all had alternative families. And all I could think was, lucky them.