Australia, 85 min.
Directed by Maya Newell
A family not bound by gender stereotypes or biology has more freedom to self-define. Gayby Baby centres on the lives and learning curves of four children in Australia of same-sex parents. Gus has two moms, as does Ebony and Matthew while Graham’s got two dads. Each is around 12 years old, that precarious and precious time of childhood, when, not yet a teenager, everyone starts to question their sexuality while trying to understand the complexities all around them. Obviously, this is amplified by the “gay parents” factor.
The director was raised by two mothers; she understands where these kids are coming from and what they’re going through. Newell’s earlier TV doc series, Growing Up Gayby, helped prepare her for a feature focusing on the issues kids of gay parents face today. From both sides of the camera, the participants know intimately what it is to be a “gayby.”
Newell’s film is set against the backdrop of Julia Gillard’s re-election campaign, the former Prime Minister of Australia being an out-spoken opponent of gay marriage. During the course of the film, we see Matthew’s pro-marriage moms being interviewed on the street about Gillard’s platform. Matthew pens a letter to Gillard: “I have two moms and I’m proud of it.” He chats with reporters saying it was stupid to debate the issue, as there should be no question about same-sex marriages and parenting. Adding to the mix, Matthew’s biological mom is a devout Catholic and he’s been having increasingly conflicting feelings about a religion that believes his parents are committing a sin against God. Between school and soccer practice, Matthew grapples with ideology and morality.
Gus’s story highlights the endemic socialisation of the masculine and feminine, how we’re conditioned to like certain things. “I’m on the long road to puberty,” he states. Gus loves wrestling, all “rough and tough and mean,” but talks about how he was “fluffy and flowery” when he was younger. One afternoon, Gus’s mom takes him and a chum out shopping for a sexy nightie for his other mother’s birthday. A quiet moment of little Gus applying red lipstick in front of a makeup counter mirror turns into one of shaming when he’s chastised and shooed away by an invisible shop-girl. He’s somewhat soothed by his mom, who says it’s perfectly fine for boys and girls to wear lipstick, but she’s not very convincing in her delivery. Surrounded by negligées, Gus’s glazed and faraway eyes speak volumes.
Graham has learning disabilities from extreme neglect by his birth family before being adopted by his two dads, who relocate the family to Fiji during the course of shooting. Filtered through Graham’s schooling, the “who we are as a family to the outside world” conversation takes place because Fiji is not “keen to gay people.” One dad counsels that their family life is private and disclosure is on a “need to know basis.” Watching Graham at the barbershop with his voice-over describing “good” and “bad” lies, calmly stating a good one is when you say you have one dad and that the other is a “carer,” is rather worrying. Balancing out that thorny moment is a tender one of Graham and his brother sandwiched on the bed being tickled by both dads, giggling about the negligent tooth fairy.
Ebony prepares for an audition to a school of performing arts, practicing songs in her messy bedroom. She has a younger brother who is epileptic and requires constant attention, and two pierced, tattooed moms struggling to get by as hair stylists. Ebony admits to worrying what people think; she used to make mean jokes about gay people, believing that “it’s not normal.” The family hopes the school will be more tolerant of their lifestyle. By the end of the film, she says, “If they have a problem with it, they’re not worth it.”
The director intended the film to be propelled by the kids, but the doc would have benefited from providing a better sense of the parents and their relationship to each other. Of the four couples, only two left a loose impression. As a viewer, there’s an emotional disconnect that leaves me wanting to know and feel more.
Gayby Baby’s grand finale is set at Sydney’s annual Mardi Gras Parade, all boas, sparkles and rainbows. But it looks and feels like something shot on a soundstage, with a jib and special lighting, which is in sharp contrast to the video style consistent with the rest of the doc. The colorful array of smiling, dancing kids is heartwarming, and a smart way to end the film: exuberant full-spectrum family pride.