ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
During the summer, kids are out of school and parents have vacation time, so Hollywood always brings out lots of family films. Well, this year, critic Bob Mondello has noticed a twist. In addition to the family films, there are quite a few alternative family films.
BOB MONDELLO: It started 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.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Back-up Plan")
Unidentified Man (Actor): (as Doctor) I have a feeling that you and CRM1014 are going to make beautiful babies together.
MONDELLO: A few weeks later, the film "Mother and Child" brought interlocking stories about adoption.
(Soundbite of movie, "Mother and Child")
Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (as Character) You need to think why you're adopting this baby in the first place.
Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (as Character) I have made a commitment that I'm going to stick to it. Mom, this is not like shopping for a pair of shoes. She's my baby.
MONDELLO: 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, which results in a scientist-scientist-and-creature family.
(Soundbite of movie, "Splice")
Ms. SARAH POLLEY (Actor): (as Elsa Kast) Scientists push boundaries.
Mr. ADRIEN BRODY (Actor): (as Clive Nicoli): Yeah. Sticking to a few rules isn't always such a bad idea either, you know.
Ms. POLLEY: (as Elsa Kast) Nobody is going to care about a few rules after they see what we have made. Do you think they could really look at this face and see anything less than a miracle?
MONDELLO: 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 are springing from a moment when America's idea of family seems more elastic than it once did, a fact that Hollywood, ever on the lookout for fresh sources of conflict and tension, is happy to exploit.
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.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Kids Are All Right")
Ms. JULIANNE MOORE (Actor): (as Jules) Are you having a relationship with someone?
Ms. ANNETTE BENING (Actor): (as Nic) You can tell us, honey. We would understand and support you.
Mr. JOSH HUTCHERSON (Actor): (as Laser) Look, I only met him once.
Ms. BENING: (as Nic) What do you mean once?
Ms. MOORE: (as Jules) Did he find you online?
Ms. BENING: (as Nic) Wait.
Mr. HUTCHERSON: (as Laser) What?
Ms. BENING: (as Nic) Wait, wait. Who did you meet once?
Mr. HUTCHERSON: (as Laser) Paul.
Ms. MOORE: (as Jules) Paul, who's Paul?
Mr. HUTCHERSON: (as Laser) I met him with Joni.
Ms. MOORE: (as Jules) Why was Joni there?
Mr. HUTCHERSON: (as Laser) She set it up.
Ms. BENING: (as Nic) Will you forget the setup. Who's Paul?
Mr. HUTCHERSON: (as Laser) Our sperm donor.
MONDELLO: From the looks on their faces, he can tell this wasn't what they expected.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Kids Are All Right")
Mr. HUTCHERSON: (as Laser) Did you guys think I was gay?
Ms. MOORE: (as Jules) No. No way.
Ms. BENING: (as Nic) Of course not.
MONDELLO: Actually, that's exactly what they thought. And back a few years ago, Hollywood could have spun a whole plot line from that confusion. These days, it can be just a starting point, because Tinseltown is so comfortable with family sagas that don't start with the traditional mommy and daddy get-together to produce kids. Witness "Despicable Me," with its animated orphans-adopting-a-supervillain plot line.
(Soundbite of movie, "Despicable Me")
Ms. ELSIE FISHER (Actor): (as Agnes) Will you read us a bedtime story?
Mr. STEVE CARELL (Actor): (as Gru) Oh, fine. All right.
Sleepy kittens. Sleepy kittens? Three little kittens love to play. They had fun in the sun all day.
Wow. This is garbage. You actually like this?
MONDELLO: As unconventional as this and the other movie plotlines 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 four 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: Moses raised by Pharaoh's daughter; Hercules with his earthly mom and godly dad.
I remember thinking as a kid that for purposes 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, Spiderman and then Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, each and every one an orphan. And they all had some sort of fascinating guardians 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.
I'm Bob Mondello.
(Soundbite of music)
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.