Dir.  Lisa Cholodenko. USA. 2010.

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When Paul Hatfield (Mark Ruffalo) first comes to meet the lesbian parents of his sperm-donated children, he comments that they have a nice house and asks one of them how long they have lived there. He doesn’t really pay any attention to her response, his eyes darting around the room, and body frantically jerking in different directions as a nervous energy flows through his body. From this we get a glimpse of the frailty and loneliness at the heart of Mark Ruffalo, which pervades this movie even more so than in the excellent You Can Count on Me, and leaves you wondering whether he is just an incredibly gifted actor, or a man lost within himself, and giving it to the screen.

Much like her criminally underrated, though atrociously-titled, 1998 pic High Art, director Lisa Cholodenko has again assembled an excellent cast with a supporting role which steals the show. In High Art it was Patricia Clarkson’s turn as a German heroine-addict glam queen, and here it is Mark Ruffalo as an unsuspecting parent. This is not to take anything away from Julianne Moore (Tanya) and Annette Bening (Nic), whose chemistry and comedic timing help add a witty sparkle to the film, which eases you into its unusual subject matter. This is just to say that the performance from Ruffalo is something which exceeds the usual superlatives of “great” or “excellent” in offering something wholly unique and engaging in a dangerous way, which is very rarely seen in cinema today or ever.

At the onset, the unique family seem to be well adjusted, and content and happy with their lives, though the son, Laser Allgood (John Hutcherson), has become curious about the identity of his biological father, and encourages his sister, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), to help him find their father, now that she has turned eighteen and is legally allowed to do so. When the two children meet their father Paul at his restaurant, Ruffalo’s body dominates the frame as the camera holds back in a long shot. His stoner 70s lingo exudes itself in the introductions with the “hey”s and “right-on!”s that dominate his vernacular throughout the film. Beyond these empty, clichéd phrases, he has nothing meaningful to say, so he nods his head continuously and gives a little nervous laugh.

This is the character we get till the end. A laid back cool, concealing a deeply troubled and unsure soul underneath. Paul feeds off his sexual conquests with Tanya (Yaya DaCosta) and lesbian mom Jules, though also spurns the advances of other girls, showing a complexity to his character. The relationship with Tanya is the beginning of his destruction of their family, and daughter Joni also seems to develop a crush on him. You’d imagine that Paul would be happy to have a fling with Joni, but like with all the girls he meets, he is completely incapable of commitment, which ultimately quells Joni’s interest. This non-committal attitude (he has never married) is something Paul acts proud of at first, celebrating the joys of the bachelor life, though his envy of the Allgood’s family unity soon emerges and brings his regret and self-loathing to the fore. He wants what he cannot have, and he wants it cheaply, without the difficulties and hardships of the process. He is exited from the film with Nic’s cutting comments “If you want a family so much, go out and make your own.” The words hit him hard standing outside the Allgood’s front door. He peers in at Laser, offering a laughing smile of understanding, looking to escape from his present situation – to deny reality and escape from responsibility. Laser gives him a cold stare in return, then walks out of his sight. Paul wanders away, throwing his helmet at his motorcycle in frustration, before riding it off into his own dark, lonely world.

The film works as a serious exploration of the realities of parenthood and family life, showing both with an unflinching eye turned towards both the benefits and also the destructive urges involved in making the decision to live inside the bubble world of a family. Paul’s figure acts as the temptation against the enclosed life, seducing Tanya and Joni with his charms. Though interestingly for a film about alternative living, with a lesbian couple having sperm donor children, ultimately the message of the film is a little conservative, though appropriately so, with Tanya and Joni’s rejection of Paul reinforcing the values of family life and the importance of persevering and working through difficult relationships. A rewarding and enjoyable film, with excellently written and delivered dialogue throughout.

Shaun McDonald

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