The kids are all right. What about the sperm donor?

Sunday night in London, I went with my friend and colleague Maria to see one highly praised movie, The kids all right, directed by Lisa Cholodenko. I must say I had high expectations about the movie, and that’s not very wise to do (not only about the movie, but as a general rule). Besides, the topic of the movie had tickled my “bioethical” attention: children conceived through IVF and looking for their biological father. Anyhow, for those of you who haven’t seen the movie, and for those who are not going to see it or do not care to know what is about (Disclaimer: the surprise is going to be spoiled by what follows), here’s a short summary: once upon our present times there was a seemingly happy family in the US (West Coast?), composed of two “moms”, Jules (Julianne Moore, no need of presentations) and Nic (Annette Bening, American Beauty) and two children: Laser (Josh Hutcherson), who’s an excellent athlete, but hangs out with a bad friend and risks getting into drugs, and Joni (Mia Wasikowska, Alice in Wonderland), who instead is the one who got “brains” and excels at school. Their moms seem to love each other, support each other (as it should happen in love I’m told) and what’s more are even still sexually attracted to each other after 20 years or so of marriage (leaving the funny details out here).

If you scratch just a bit the surface, though, the lesbian family depicted in the movie by Cholodenko seems actually much more conventional than many: one of the two parents (Nic) is obviously the stereotypical manly/fatherly figure of the two, the one who (being a doctor) brings home money at the end of the month and supports the other parent, Jules, in her choices and in her not being sure of what she wants to achieve in life. The dynamic between the two parents reproduces therefore a sort of a conventional, old style patriarchal family. Plus, the all family seems a quite idyllic or idealized picture, as there are no conflicts at all, since everybody’s so modern and open to talk about any issues that it is quite impossible for issues to arise, something quite improbable in real life.

The plot starts to roll because the younger brother, Laser, who’s 15, asks the older sister Joni (18) to make a phone call for him, and get in contact with the biological  father. First fault of the movie: this urge of Laser comes out totally unexpected for the spectators, and we are left without explanations on why this happened. Anyhow, the sperm-donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo) agrees to get in contact with the kids, most out of curiosity or just because the phone call from the cryobank catches him while he’s doing something else, and so he seems to take that decision without thinking too much, as it is also seems for other decisions in his life. For example, his biological son will ask him later on in the movie why he decided to donate sperm, and his first (probably sincere) answer is: “Because I reckoned it was more fun than giving blood”, while the second one would be: “I wanted to help people” and the third, looking straight in the eyes of his biological son, is “I’m glad I did” (so deep…).

At the beginning  everything goes by incredibly smooth and easy: both Jules and Matti seem to get in contact, “to bond”, with Paul (especially the girl, Joni), as they like him very much, mostly because he’s much more unconventional than their moms: he rides a motorbike, dropped out of college and started a very (successful) restaurant, he’s into organic food and recycling. Basically, he’s “cool”.

The moms also seem to bond with him (for one, they like the same music, Joni Mitchell), even if it turns out that he wasn’t into international relationships as he had written in his file as a sperm-donor, but that at 19 yo he was just considering it before deciding he wanted to “go out” and do stuff instead than “wasting his time” sitting on a chair studying (this tells us something about the market of oocytes and sperm in the US and the criteria employed for choosing the donors).

Especially the feminine figure of the gay couple, interpreted splendidly by Julianne Moore (all the main characters are actually interpreted splendidly, and this is in my opinion what gives the movie a “sufficient” vote at the end) seems to bond with the sperm donor. To start with, he gives her her first job as a landscape designer (the third business she tries to set up in her life, with the aid of the money of the manly figure of the couple, Nic) when he asks her to work on his wild garden. She does great at it and feels appreciated, and as it turns unsurprisingly out, she had an unresolved inferiority complex with the other mom.

As the kids start enjoying more and more time with their “Daddy-donor”, as they call him, the other mom, Nic, becomes more and more nervous, as she feels that he is taking over her family.

Things get more complicated when Jules starts having a sexual affair with the Daddy donor. This move also comes totally unexplained in a context of a couple where apparently there were no problems. But, as that often seems to be the case in life, we won’t bother too much about the motivations or reasons that brought to Julianne having sex with a man after 20 or more years of being a happy and satisfied lesbian.

Things get even more complicated when Paul starts falling for Jules, and would like to bring things into the open and “go for it”. It also seems that the “Daddy-mode” (as one of his former lovers describes it) suits him very well and suddenly he feels the need for a family of his own, after having never been either married nor with anything more serious than dating for all his life (he’s in his late 30s).

Things become even more complicated when Nic finds out about the affair.

To cut it short: the story has a happy ending. For almost all of the protagonists. Nick and Jule will not break up, even just because their son tells them they’re “too old” to do that. They give their kids a lesson about the difficulty of marriage but the beauty of overcoming hurdles together (while also hinting at the necessity of reading “more Russian novels”…?!?). Laser seems to stop seeing the bad influencing friend Clay (also without an apparent reason), Joni is more mature and ready to fly away from the nest and go to college.

The only one for which there’s no happy ending is the Daddy-donor, Paul. On the last night at home of Joni before going to college, Paul knocks on the door pleading to talk to her, after she had refused to talk with him when finding out he was having an affair with her mom. She’s algid, tells him “I wish you had been better” and doesn’t give him much hope that she’ll let him contact her again, even if he says how much he cares about her. Nic, the fatherly figure, looks at him with disdain and superiority and tells him to go and found his own family, instead of trying to belong to what it’s not his. The other mom and briefly lover Jules, and the guy Laser do not even go out of their way to talk with him. Basically Daddy-donor is left alone and judged by everybody.

So what’s the message of the movie? Conventional ways of living, even if a bit disguised (because it’s not enough to be gay to be non-conventional) win over non conventional ways of living. The poor Daddy-donor, who had been contacted after 20 years of donating, accepted to meet his biological kids to fulfill their desires, understood very well the limits of his role and never tried to overcome it or to destroy anybody else’s family, but only spent time with the kids as requested, and had the disgrace of falling in love with one of the parents, is left alone and scolded for his immaturity and for not having respected what society asked of him, namely: a) go to college; b) have a family of his own in his late 30s.

As you can read between the lines, I remained quite skeptical of the movie, while enjoying its funny bits. At least I think one important ethical aspect has been overlooked: the rights of the Daddy-donor. But maybe I was a) biased due to my too high expectations, b) distracted due to a little mouse squirming around in the movie theater, which caused quite a few giggles and screams. Maria, what do you say?

PS for the Londoners: it was the Haymarket theather, if you plan going there any time soon…



  1. Excellent post, Silvia! While watching the film, especially while watching how Annette Bening’s character personified all the worst stereotypes of patriarchal fatherhood (workaholism and alcoholism, to name a few), I couldn’t help but recalling Judith Butler’s comment on gay parenting at a conference in Rome two years ago. She highlighted that (and I apologize in advance for my inadequate paraphrase) it is a major challenge for gay parents today to reinvent normative family practices. Butler investigated this issue in more detail in her article “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?” ( In the last section, she lists a number of questions about non-normative kinship to be addressed by future research, and among them: “How do children who are displaced from original families or born through implantation or donor insemination understand their origins? What cultural narratives are at their disposal, and what particular interpretations do they give to these conditions?” The Kids Are All Right could have potentially provided one of such cultural narratives, had it approached this complex issue less superficially (and conventionally).

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