Entertainment

Lesbian Family-Court Doc Nuclear Family is Disappointingly Conventional

The director Ry Russo-Young was born, along with her older sister Cade, to two mothers. Her otherwise idyllic childhood was punctuated by the rebelliousness of that fact and the battle her biological father, a gay man named Tom who entered her life when she was five years old, waged in order to win unrestricted visitation rights with her.

Her three-part HBO docuseries, Nuclear Family, airing September 26, explores her mothers’ Robin Young and Sandy “Russo” Russo’s fierce legal fight for their own version of the two-parent household—one which, as it unfolded, was chronicled on television and newspapers. The show’s title is not a provocation as much as it is a description: Young and Russo created a lesbian version of tradition, and when their sperm donor became increasingly enmeshed, and then sued them in order to take his place as “father,” the mothers were thrown into the position of having to defend an unconventional version of a traditional premise. Both sides, then, became reactionaries, though for different causes. It’s a complicated story, and one which the director struggles, both as a daughter and a filmmaker, to plumb the depths of. The feature films Russo-Young has helmed, including Nobody Walks (2012) and Before I Fall (2017), are similarly uneven, but fictional—coming-of-age narratives centering dreamy, young, straight white women in alternately ideal and undesirable circumstances. We see her repeat the missteps in those films in the real-life arena of Nuclear Family. Except this time, she’s the main character.

In the late 80s and 90s, when Russo-Young was growing up, lesbians were not “supposed” to create families. And biology–in the minds of conservatives and even liberals emphasizing “traditional family values”—was destiny. These terms sound familiar because they’re not far off from the anti-trans logic taking the UK, and certain journalistic circles in the US, by storm today, rhetoric that’s being spouted plenty of lesbians and gays (often called trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs).

I bring this up not because there is any anti-trans rhetoric in Nuclear Family (there isn’t), but because it’s important to note how biological determination has been employed by seemingly opposing groups. When Tom, a glamorous California lawyer who was never previously interested in kids, suddenly fell in love with the child he helped create (he is the biological father of Ry but not Cade), he decided to use a regressive, patriarchal law to take Young (Ry’s biological mother) to family court. Young and Russo, in turn, felt they needed to protect their nuclear family, pulling their children closer to them and away from any intruders.

Courtesy of HBO.

Russo-Young does her best to air out the arguments and circumstances on both sides (and I won’t spoil them all here), though it’s clear that she has always been resentful of Tom’s decision to sue her mothers. Along with Young, Russo, and Cade, Russo-Young speaks to the lawyers involved in the case, including the lawyer that was assigned to represent her as a child; she also speaks to the son of Tom’s partner Milton, and Cris Arguedas, a former family friend who introduced Tom as a sperm donor. Every interviewee voices compelling legal and emotional reasons for their actions in the course of the lawsuit.

Ultimately, Tom’s decision to litigate— rather than speaking to Young and Russo in person to come to a compromise that wouldn’t rattle the children’s lives—permeates the thread of the docuseries. Yet Russo-Young does not pursue it further than asking many of the same questions, over and over again. There are lots of answers about how Tom “felt it was his only option” to sue, since Young and Russo had introduced new boundaries around visits that he bristled against. But what’s never examined is the degree to which his identity as a formidable lawyer would’ve made him quick to litigate where another sperm donor, who had already relinquished their parental rights, may have sought to maintain a positive relationship and resolve things interpersonally, even if they were in disagreement.

Similarly, yet understandably, Russo-Young is unable to look closely and critically at her parents’ vision of family. She allows others to come up with ideas and theories about the concept, but she never demonstrates real interest in what these ideas mean, or how they relate to her personally. Why are Young and Russo so committed to a traditional, if lesbian, version of family? Why, exactly, didn’t they trust Tom and his partner Milton to spend time with Ry and Cade without their mothers present? How real did the threat of losing their children feel, and was there any way to protect their children from that same fear? Russo-Young tries, but ultimately fails, to explore these questions in an incisive or original way. Relatedly, very little attention is given to her sister Cade, who we later find out is a lesbian herself and has since had a child of her own with her partner. Wouldn’t Cade’s story be as compelling as Ry’s, since it has begun to mirror their mothers’ journey? Cade’s biological father, Jack, receives mention, but his background isn’t examined either; why didn’t he sue for paternity? What was his relationship to Cade and vice versa?

By the end of the series, Russo-Young, who is straight, tries to link her own, recently formed nuclear family’s future to her often dreamlike and sometimes disturbing childhood. But the connections she draws feel like an afterthought. There’s a strong sense that she struggled to deal with the amount of space she was given, and in fact, Nuclear Family, like her own family, is deceptively conventional. Unlike other recent documentaries that have plumbed the depths of parental history, like Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson Is Dead or Sarah Polley’s The Stories We Tell, this project contains no experimentation or risk in how a family narrative is re-constructed for the screen. It’s a he-said she-said story, ready-made for the internet–an eruption of discourse with little coherence.

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