With the awards season well under way in Hollywood, this year the nominations so far point to more than just who might walk away with the Oscar for best picture come February. Enter Lisa Cholodenko's comedy The Kids Are All Right: it's just claimed four major nods at the Golden Globes, often seen as the precursor to the Academy Awards.
The film, which is up for best picture in the 'Musical or Comedy' category, stars Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, who will be fighting it out for best actress, while Cholodenko and her writing partner Stuart Blumberg have been nominated for best screenplay.
Given that Bening and Moore play Nic and Jules, a liberal-minded lesbian couple, its acceptance into the awards season feels significant. Of course, you might argue this is nothing new: in 1993, Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Philadelphia, for his role of a gay lawyer who contracts Aids; in 2005 Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger gained Academy nods for playing two cowboys tormented by their attraction to each other in Brokeback Mountain; and in 2009, Sean Penn won the second Oscar of his career, portraying Harvey Milk, the rights activist who became California's first openly gay elected official, in Gus Van Sant's Milk.
These films owe much to the New Queer Cinema wave that began in earnest with Bill Sherwood's 1986 film Parting Glances, which featured Steve Buscemi as a gay rock star dying of Aids. If that was a defiantly independent movement - with work from the likes of Todd Haynes (Poison), Rose Troche (Go Fish) and Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho) all carrying the torch - it now seems safe for more commercial entertainment to embrace gay characters. Not least with the TV series The L-Word - which Cholodenko worked on - that depicts a group of Los Angeles-based lesbians. As Cholodenko says, 'It seems like there's a lot more gay characters [on screen now] - well drawn, tokenistic or otherwise.'
Yet The Kids Are All Right represents an even bigger step forward. The aforementioned films - alongside Tom Ford's A Single Man, which saw Colin Firth nominated for an Oscar this year for his portrayal of a gay academic gone suicidal after the death of his lover - deal with protagonists whose sexuality dominates the narrative. If many of the characters in these films were traumatised in some way by being gay, Cholodenko's film is a reflection of how times have changed, how sexuality is no longer a stigma. As she puts it, same-sex marriages are no different to opposite sex ones. 'Now in the States, everybody is rising up and going, 'Our lives are just as square as your lives. We're saving for college, too!''
In her film, these two affluent, middle-class Los Angeles 'mums' - Nic is a doctor, Jules a landscape gardener - come across as no different to any other concerned parents. Their problems occur when their two teenage children (Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson) decide they want to find their sperm donor father (Mark Ruffalo). In other words, it doesn't deal with the archetypal issues that so often determine gay-themed films. 'I feel like it's really a film about family,' says Cholodenko.
Compare it to her first film High Art (1998), with its fringe story of a young female intern and her affair with a lesbian drug-addicted photographer, and it feels far more mainstream. What's more, with a US$28 million global box office (seven times its low budget), there's clearly a market for it.
As the story progresses, Ruffalo's leather-clad caf?owner, Paul, causes the equilibrium of this modern clan to disintegrate - not least when he begins an affair with Jules (brilliantly portrayed by Moore as an idealistic earth-mother type next to Bening's more uptight opposite). Cholodenko hopes people will view the depiction as an 'even-handed representation of the s*** people go through and the storms people can weather and stick out for good reasons' when it comes to long-term relationships.
As Andrew O'Hehir, critic for Salon.com, puts it, Cholodenko's work 'ranks with the most compelling portraits of an American marriage, regardless of sexuality, in film history'.
Ask the 46-year-old Cholodenko, who was inspired to write the script after she and her partner, musician Wendy Melvoin, conceived their son, Calder, via sperm donor, and she sighs whenever she thinks of gay portrayals in films she's seen. 'I just feel like they're so generalised in a way. They're so kind of arch. It's usually somebody coming out of the closet, which I wasn't interested in at all. I just thought, 'Why can't this be about something else? Why can't this be about some deeper exploration of the emotional life of these two people that are in this marriage at this really unusual moment in the family's history?''
Cholodenko admits she didn't want to make a statement with the film. 'When I felt like it was veering off into something more superficial when I was writing it, or political or politically correct, I reined myself back in.'
Yet by presenting her characters as part of a normal, if rather chaotic, family - relegating their sexual orientation to the background - it's about as political as you can get. Not least arriving in the wake of the so-called Proposition 8 in 2008, which amended the constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage in California (where Cholodenko was raised and still lives). 'It's pathetic,' she says. 'It brings me down. The whole gay marriage thing in the States is really disappointing. I feel ashamed what's going on in that culture.'
Indeed, such is the severity of this in the US now, with other states following suit, it wouldn't be a surprise if directors turned their attention to the sociological impact this might have. Which in turn could mean realistic portrayals of same-sex families are again put on the backburner in favour of more aggressively political pieces. Surely this would be a step backwards, for as The Kids Are All Right shows, films led by gay characters no longer need to be about the issues surrounding sexuality.
For once, it seems that Hollywood is in the vanguard of progressive social thinking.
The Kids Are All Right opens on Thursday