Welcome to the Weekend Binge. Every week, we’ll suggest a binge-able title designed to keep you from getting too stir crazy. Check back throughout the weekend for even more gloriously queer entertainment.
The Explosive: Nuclear Family
We can’t say enough good about Nuclear Family, the no-holds-barred exploration of director Ry Russo-Young’s upbringing by a same-sex couple. To recap: in the 1980s, lesbian couple Robin & Russo had given birth to Ry and her sister Cade through surrogacy. Flash forward a few years to when Ry and Cade began asking about the identity of their donors. At the urging of Robin & Russo, Tom, Ry’s donor, met with the family and began a loving relationship with the girls. Years passed by, and tensions developed between Tom, Robin & Russo. Then, after an explosive fight, Tom decided to sue for custody of Ry.
In her direction of this three-part documentary series, Russo-Young births a jaw-dropping act of artistic fortitude. Told through interviews with her moms and sister, as well as with friends of Tom, his family, and their former attorneys, Nuclear Family–miraculously–never assigns blame, painting each figure as a nuanced person justified in their feelings. As a viewer, our sympathies lurch from one “side” to the next. Robin & Russo raised their daughters at a time when same-sex couples had virtually no family rights, so the threat of a custody suit really did pose an existential threat to their roles as mothers. For all their hatred of Tom, the two seem to forget they invited him to be part of their family, which makes Tom’s protests that they discounted his role in their lives feel righteous. Russo-Young also examines the plasticity of memory, and how feelings of fear, anger, sadness, and desperation can warp our true recollections of true reality.
By the time Nuclear Family arrives at its climax, a picture of that reality begins to emerge: one of a beautiful, pioneering queer family undone by adult ego, fear and a legal system totally unprepared to address its conflict. The true tragedy of Nuclear Family lays in the story of two remarkable little girls: one of whom spent four years yanked around by the legal system, the other that felt forgotten amid the chaos, both denied a relationship with a father figure they loved. Because of Tom’s reckless lawsuit, Robin & Russo spent four years terrorized that they could lose their daughters. Because of Robin & Russo’s refusal to accept their family had changed, Tom died without the two girls he loved as daughters at his side. As one interview subject tells Russo-Young: “We f*cked this up for you.”
Damn right they did. Yet, for all the boneheaded choices made by Robin, Russo and Tom, we cannot hate them. Because of their trailblazing, LGBTQ-headed families today can enjoy legal protection and a sense of acceptance. But for pioneers, the peril of venturing into the unknown means facing unforeseen pitfalls. What a shame, then, that these three brave and dynamic adults had to stumble so hard.
Watch and weep…with admiration and sorrow.
Streams on HBO Max. The finale airs October 10.