Does it count as representational progress when a drama about the fissures that destroy a gay marriage and the ensuing fight for primary custody of the couple’s child is just as bland as any heteronormative version of that sad story?
Bill Oliver’s Our Son boasts solid lead performances from Luke Evans and Billy Porter as the dads whose life together has hit a wall, plus a capable supporting cast stacked with talented theater actors. The movie is tasteful and restrained and sensitively handled at every step. But unless you count one of the men finding post-breakup sexual distraction wrapped around a slinky club kid named Solo (Isaac Powell), there’s too little here to distinguish the film from endless other broken-family dramas that have gone before.
The Bottom Line
Earnest to a fault.
There’s even less to put it on a level with standouts like Kramer vs. Kramer, The Squid and the Whale or Marriage Story. Without a more psychologically insightful script and less predictable story developments, Our Son shows that gay couples’ problems can be just as uninteresting as any other couples’ problems. Welcome to post-marriage equality humdrum!
Stay-at-home dad Gabriel (Porter) and successful publisher Nicky (Evans) have been married for 13 years, the last eight of them spent raising their son Owen (Christopher Woodley). Nicky chides Gabriel for over-indulging Owen and Gabriel takes digs at Nicky about being caught up in his work and not sufficiently invested in the boy’s life. When Gabriel reveals that he’s involved in an extramarital relationship, Nicky takes the news hard, and while the affair is over quickly, Gabriel’s dissatisfaction with the marriage is not.
Nicky promises to be a better husband and father, but Gabriel has already seen a divorce lawyer and started proceedings, so he’s forced to engage his own attorney, played with warmth and compassion by Robin Weigert. Animosity escalates and the knives come out, or at least as close to knives as the pedestrian script by Peter Nickowitz and director Oliver will allow.
The conflict in the film over who gets to be the primary parent sparks up partly out of Nicky’s fury with his husband for bailing on a marriage he believes is worth saving. Gabriel sanctimoniously insists that he is the better parent, his love and care providing a family for Owen, while Nicky, the boy’s biological father, counters that he was busy earning the money to give them a home. Or as their friend Matthew (Andrew Rannells) puts it, “When Owen was born, Gabe fell in love with him and you fell by the wayside.”
One of the weaknesses of the script is that we never really learn much about either of the spouses, meaning they’re defined almost entirely by their marriage, and by the morose or angry moods that spring from its breakdown.
Nicky just signed a big author, which will provide a major financial boost, but that’s about it for him. Gabriel, unquestionably a devoted parent, gave up acting to do yoga, go shopping and attend PTA meetings. But as Nicky says in the kind of barb the film could have used more of, giving up his acting career would require having had a career to begin with. Nor does Owen get much dramatic space beyond intermittent shots of the boy expressing his unhappiness and confusion over the trouble between Papa and Daddy.
Too much information comes in writing that’s clichéd and obvious. Does anyone still buy movie kids asking a parent to tell them the story of their birth one more time, strictly for the audience’s benefit? And just because Nicky’s discussion of parenting and fathers with the couple’s posse of queer friends happens over mimosas doesn’t make it any less didactic. The social context about negatives like divorce and custody disputes being part of the marriage-equality territory is woven into the story, but without fresh illumination.
The monotony of the interplay between Gabriel and Nicky, both in and out of court, is briefly relieved by scenes with their respective families. Nicky gets some solidarity from his sister Alex (Emily Donahoe), joking that their churchy folks (Kate Burton and Michael Countryman) have had to absorb the disappointment of a gay son and a divorced daughter and now get the fresh blow of a divorced gay son. . And Gabriel receives words of cautionary wisdom during a visit from his mother (Phylicia Rashad).
The film builds some poignancy once it tightens its focus on Nicky, first in a lovely interlude with Owen at Coney Island and then alone, as he reaches a heartbreaking decision and eventually makes peace with it. In the less showy of the two lead roles, Evans is quietly moving in the closing scenes. But Our Son — underscored with somber music from frequent Joachim Trier composer Ola Fløttum — is too one-note to have much emotional impact, its characters too carefully balanced and inoffensive to be interesting. Mostly, it plays like a decorous old-school telemovie, well-meaning but dull.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Narrative)
Production companies: Tigresa, in association with Slated, Federal Films, TPC
Cast: Luke Evans, Billy Porter, Christopher Woodley, Andrew Rannells, Robin Weigert, Kate Burton, Phylicia Rashad, Isaac Powell, Michael Countryman, David Pittu, Cassandra Freeman, Gabby Beans, Liza J. Bennett, Nuala Cleary, Francis Jue, Bryan Terrell Clark, Alfredo Narciso, Emily Donahoe
Director: Bill Oliver
Screenwriters: Peter Nickowitz, Bill Oliver
Producers: Fernando Loureiro, Eric Binns, Guilherme Coelho, Jennifer 8. Lee, Christopher Lin
Executive producers: Billy Porter, Bill Oliver, Peter Nickowitz, Monte Lipman, Dana Sano, Nicole Jordan-Webber, John Wollman, Ross Boucher, Saikat Chakrabarti, Katie Leary, Morwin Schmookler, Jorge Ortiz, Jay Burnley, Carissa Knol, Jonathan Gardner, Ali Jazayeri, David Gendron, Liz Destro, Robert Rippberger
Director of photography: Luca Fantini
Production designer: Sophia Uehara
Costume designer: Aubrey Laufer
Music: Ola Fløttum
Editors: Zach Clark, Tyler Jensen
Casting: Scotty Anderson
1 hour 44 minutes
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