Bill Oliver / Peter Nickowitz and Bill Oliver
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Movies and TV shows with heavy subjects
Nonfamily dramas with strong adult and/or socioeconomic themes
Our lives can get messy. What even our closest friends see and hear doesn’t reveal what’s underneath the façade masking the messiness of our realities. But I guess it depends how closely we hold our friends. In the movie, Our Son, Gabriel and Nicky are married with an 8-year-old son named Owen. To their relatives and friends, they appear to be a happy family. But while Gabriel is close to his son, he no longer feels close to Nicky. A stay-at-home dad, Gabriel is the prototypical homemaker: cooking, cleaning, walking Owen to and from school, dealing with the PTA (Bless him!), and comforting him in time of need. Nicky is a successful publishing executive who works outside the home to financially support the family.
The two share a tight-knit group of friends with whom they regularly get together for dinner, special events, and just hanging out. Hints of problems in Gabriel and Nicky’s relationship appear as they initially exchange small slights in private, which then evolve into larger put-downs in front of their friends. Owen, while generally a happy child, senses a breakdown of the harmony at home as he overhears the two arguing more and more frequently, despite their efforts to keep it down. When one of them files for divorce, what was once a tightly woven relationship begins to unravel and the pain experienced by everyone in proximity to them becomes palpable, even to us in the audience.
I can remember a visit to the emergency room when I was in severe abdominal pain, so much so that I would not allow the doctor to touch me. It doesn’t make sense, but we rarely do when we are in excruciating pain. We get a sense of the emotional parallel to this when Gabriel insists that he and Nicky tell Owen that they are splitting up. Nicky responds by promptly kicking Gabriel out of the house. Incredulous, Gabriel asks, “Are you serious?” Nicky angrily points to the door, “Go, now.” Nicky stands in the foyer as Gabriel very slowly puts on his slippers, opens the door, and turns to look at Nicky in disbelief before walking through the threshold and softly closing the door behind him.
Similar scenes in dramatic films are usually performed fast, in fits of anger with raised voices, and ending with the slamming of a door, as in the 2010 film, Blue Valentine. The absence of such histrionics in Our Son is undoubtedly by design, so the audience is permitted the time to sit in the scene and feel the pain of the deep emotional wounds often associated with divorce. This tactic is not unique to this film, though, as it can be found in other compassionate works on the subject, such as the 2019 release, Marriage Story starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, and the 2021 HBO mini-series, Scenes from a Marriage, with Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac. True to form for stories about divorce, there is some yelling. But yelling neither dominates nor defines these pieces so exquisitely crafted to depict the pain and dynamics of the break-up of a marriage.
Another major distinction between Our Son and other films about divorce is that the lead characters are a gay couple rather than heterosexual . I love this switch. Indeed, one of my pet peeves about films with LGBTQ+ individuals and communities is their tendency to center the story on the people rather than the problem that needs to be solved. Think Boys in the Band, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and numerous other films. In contrast to these, Our Son focuses on divorce as the dilemma requiring a resolution. This is a refreshing contrast from past films because it presents LGBTQ+ individuals and families dealing with the same kinds of issues and struggles that others do – the most fundamental of which is keeping their families safe and intact.
Phylicia Rashad makes an appearance in Our Son as Gabriel’s loving mother, who reminds him that despite their differences, Nicky, played by Luke Evans (Beauty and the Beast, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), is someone he cares deeply about. The two, however, are at odds over who gets custody of Owen - Nicky who says he “can support him financially in the way he has become accustomed,” or Gabriel, played by Billy Porter (Pose, Fairfax), who feels it is appropriate since he has been “Owen’s primary caretaker since he was born.”
These are not atypical claims for fractured families who live middle-class lifestyles, such as those with college degrees, low to mid-six-figure incomes, and multi-story homes in communities with Blue Ribbon public schools. This is the context of Gabriel and Nicky’s existence, which leaves one to wonder if such a story about divorce would be appealing within a different set of socioeconomic circumstances - a movie, for example, about the divorce of a working-class couple (same-sex or heterosexual) presented in a similarly humane and palpable way. For working-class families, such stories are rarely central to the film, and when they are, they tend to be presented as modern-day comedies (Crazy, Stupid, Love. Definitely, Maybe) or tragedies (Safe Haven, Enough). In this respect, Our Son depicts more of the middle-class lifestyle often presented in film and television.
Despite the social-class rub, Peter Nickowitz and Bill Oliver’s moving piece does an excellent job of maintaining the focus not on the couple’s sexual orientation, but on the unimaginable yet relatable pain that is part and parcel of the break-up of a love that once was. This is needed to help us remain mindful that these are people’s lives and the sh**’s real no matter the couple’s sexual orientation.