Nuclear Family Review: An Indie Director Explodes Public Opinion of Her Family From the Inside-Out

The controversy has blown over by now (or has it?), but back when “Toy Story 4” came out, a certain contingent of the moviegoing public went nuclear when they discovered that Pixar had included a lesbian couple in the background of two scenes. Appearing briefly in Bonnie’s pre-school class, the women had no lines, but it was clear from the way one affectionately put her hand on the other’s shoulder that these were not your normal movie moms.

Then again, what is “normal” when it comes to families? That’s a question director Ry Russo-Young raises from personal experience in HBO’s “Nuclear Family.” The filmmaker — who broke out at festivals such as SXSW and Sundance with such identity-examining indies as “Orphans” and “Before I Fall” — was raised by a lesbian couple and later found herself the subject of a precedent-setting legal battle, when the sperm donor sued her moms for paternity rights. “Nuclear Family” is the filmmaker’s own story: how it felt to grow up at the center of that storm, fighting to protect the dynamic she knew in a patriarchal system governed by perhaps outdated ideas of the proverbial “best interests of the child.”

Turbulent and thought-provoking, the three-part docuseries feels enough like one long movie to have made its premiere earlier this month at the Telluride Film Festival, where it sparked some of the most passionate conversations in a long weekend hardly lacking in same. Make no mistake: This is most decidedly a TV project, stretched out as it is to 158 minutes and chaptered in such a way that each installment ends on a compelling don’t-stop-now twist. I’ve already spoiled the first (it’s hard not to, since Russo-Young’s court battle was so highly publicized in its time), though the series spends its first hour re-creating the idealism with which committed partners Sandy Russo and Robin Young — whose 15-year age difference was almost more of a “thing” than the fact they shared the same gender — set out to have kids.

“Coming out, being gay, meant that you were not going to have children,” Robin tells her daughter. “It was almost like you were giving up that right to have a family.” Then a friend stumbled across an eye-opening pamphlet called “Woman Controlled Conception” which detailed how lesbian couples could make children without the involvement of dads. There had to be some involvement, of course, but that could be limited to the fertilization step, after which, “Russo” (as everyone calls her) and Robin would serve as the children’s parents.

The couple selected their donors — two “friend of a friend”-type referrals, Jack and Tom, both gay — and did the insemination with a veggie jar and syringe, giving birth to two girls, Cade and Ry. From the outset, Russo and Robin’s intentions were clear: Their kids’ biological dads would have no rights and no responsibilities toward their offspring. But the women also decided that if and when their kids wanted to know about how they’d been conceived, the women would explain it and give the girls a chance to meet their biological dads. Which they did. And which led to Tom Steel reentering their lives and eventually taking them to court, relying on arguments that were actively discriminatory against the gay community to which he belonged.

The ensuing legal battle consumes the middle hour of Russo-Young’s documentary and contains so many of the hooks that make for compelling TV. Perhaps most intriguing was Tom’s tragic belief that such a high-conflict approach might somehow result in his being able to form a positive relationship with “his” “daughter.” Before getting into the courtroom drama, director Russo-Young uses the introductory episode as a kind of all-purpose overview of the cultural revolution into which she and older sister Cade were born, as her parents were among a first wave of lesbian mothers to challenge the definition of what a family could be.

From the series’ opening minutes, Russo-Young also makes clear that she’ll be untangling her own understandably complicated feelings about her upbringing. “Is this all going to be in the third person?” Russo asks her daughter, hidden behind the camera. The director can’t help but participate, drawing extensively from a 2004 documentary — Meema Spadola’s “Our House” — in which a younger Russo-Young makes the case for growing up with lesbian parents. Though heavy on talking heads, the sophisticated assembly draws from myriad sources, often finding clever visual connections, while the tense stutter of a Philip Glass-like score lends urgency and intrigue.

Russo-Young is a product of a media-saturated generation, and yet, there were no pop-culture depictions like the two moms who appear in “Toy Story 4” to help normalize the dynamic of her household (the fear that Pixar might have that effect is precisely what threatens conservative critics). But filmmaking — from amateur home videos to more polished college assignments shot on Hi8 — became a means of processing her experiences, and as such, “Nuclear Family” serves as the ultimate tool for the director to reexamine her own views of her childhood, and to question how they may have been shaped.

In various ways, “Nuclear Family” proves a more nuanced reflection of a complicated childhood than HBO’s much-discussed “Allen v. Farrow,” although audiences will be relieved to know that Russo-Young’s early claim — “If anything, I was loved too much” — does not foreshadow any kind of abuse. Both series raise interesting issues of ongoing gender bias in family law, showing how non-legal fathers can weaponize charges of “brainwashing” (add to that Tom’s sexist charges of “psychological fusion” here). Whereas “Allen v. Farrow” actively discourages the idea, Russo-Young takes the opportunity to question some of her core beliefs.

The director has long been a vocal advocate of same-sex parents (in 2004, she appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine beside the headline “Got a Problem With My Mothers?”), but it’s encouraging to think that the public acceptance of gay and lesbian families has reached a point where Russo-Young can relax the party line somewhat. In the series’ introspective final hour, she examines the concern that gay parents will raise their children to be gay (often cited by religious parents busy indoctrinating their own kids to be religious). She shows footage of her lesbian sister Cade’s coming out and even personally acknowledges that she believed herself to be queer for many years, recalling how, when she realized otherwise, “A part of me needed permission from my moms to be part of the straight world.” These are courageous admissions, reflective of the overall maturity of Russo-Young’s approach, since they show a willingness to consider the whole picture, and a trust in audiences to do the same.

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