Indie Film or Jerry Springer?

Suzanne Tenner / Courtesy of Focus Features

Two hot lesbians face serious relationship drama when one starts sleeping with the couple’s baby daddy. A sex-starved middle-aged housewife seduces her son’s 20-something friend. A horny dad gets it on with his teen daughter’s cosmetician on her massage table. Now, you tell us: does this sound like an episode of Jerry Springer, or a weekend at the art-house cinema?

If you guessed both, congratulations. While these plotlines might seem ripped from tawdry daytime TV, they are in fact elements of three decidedly high-minded independent films currently in theaters: The Kids Are All Right, I Am Love, and Please Give. Rather than being presented for the audience’s voyeuristic derision, the characters’ choices are portrayed without judgment as the sort of midlife challenges all sensitive, upper-middle-class adults face. While it’s not fair to say these films have the same intentions or aspirations as lowest-common-denominator television, it is interesting to ask why the same subject matter feels so different when presented as “art” instead of exploitation. Is it a question of sensitivity—or set design?

In The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko’s lo-fi, finely observed drama, a longtime lesbian couple’s stability is shattered when their children’s dad (via sperm donation) comes back into the picture. And what an attractive picture it is: Nic and Jules share an expansive Craftsman bungalow with deep marble tub, widescreen TV, and lush backyard. They drink fancy wine, wear fashionably distressed bohemian-chic T shirts, and drive a safe-yet-sporty station wagon. Paul, their two kids’ “bio-dad,” is similarly tasteful in his lifestyle: he owns a trendy organic restaurant, lives in a cool loft in the hills, and has an appropriately eclectic record collection. (Nic, originally wary of Paul, softens once she discovers a shared love of Joni Mitchell.)

The performances, especially that of Annette Bening as the tightly wound Nic, are outstanding, and Cholodenko has a fine-grained feel for the warp and weft of monogamy. But you do have to wonder how the story would read if it were set in a trailer park, the characters all wore sweatpants, and instead of bonding over a plate of grass-fed beef and garden-fresh tomatoes, they passed a bag of cheese puffs while watching professional wrestling. Would their dilemma still seem as nuanced and bittersweet? Or might it just seem kinda trashy and gross?

Class features even more prominently in I Am Love, where the main character’s dissatisfaction and sexual repression are presented as a direct result of her extremely privileged lifestyle, and in Please Give, where a successful furniture-store owner makes herself miserable feeling guilty about being more fortunate than those fated to go through life without ever reclining on an Eames sofa. In these films, class is an affliction, an excuse for the characters’ unhappiness. It is also a justification for the films themselves. The implication is, here you have smart, educated, tasteful, sensitive, attractive people—of course their problems are worthy of our sympathy.

Rich people have problems, too, and heartbreak is heartbreak regardless of your tax bracket. The plotlines of our most potent myths—Oedipus killing his father to sleep with his mother, say—are continually reinterpreted in operas, novels, and plays, as well as cheesy melodramas and shock TV shows. They endure because they dramatize basic aspects of the human condition: jealousy, betrayal, remorse. The fault lies not with the plots but with ourselves—if we, as an audience, respond differently to the people enacting the human condition based on how they dress or where they live.

Cholodenko, to her credit, tweaks the bourgeois pieties of Nic and Jules’s milieu. Nic’s New Age–flavored therapy-speak—“I wasn’t being my highest self”—is greeted with eye rolling by her kids, and a dinner companion’s paean to acai-berry-and-hemp-milk smoothies is received with outright hostility. But that doesn’t make their experiences any nobler or more meaningful than the trials of any of the have-nots.

Shows like Jerry Springer trade on exploitation, while films like The Kids Are All Right are about exploration, and perhaps that difference is what makes one art and the other entertainment. But let’s not pretend that the subject matter, whether set to Joni Mitchell or onstage in front of an angry mob shouting, “She’s! A! Dude!,” is not, at heart, the same.