Nuclear Family’s title refers to the simultaneously traditional and trailblazing clan that director Ry Russo-Young’s lesbian mothers, Robin Young and Sandy “Russo” Russo, crafted for herself and her older sister Cade. It also, however, suggests the atomic-grade bomb that nearly destroyed their happy unit when the sperm donor who was biologically responsible for Ry, respected San Francisco gay-rights attorney Tom Steel, sought to be legally declared Ry’s father in order to secure custody rights. It’s a story that made national headlines in the early ’90s, and one that Russo-Young—now an accomplished filmmaker in her own right—tackles in her three-part autobiographical documentary (Sept. 26 on HBO) with a frankness and nuance that’s nothing short of astonishing.
Brave, balanced, and brimming with empathy, it’s a strong contender for the best non-fiction work of the year.
As they explain in one of numerous revealing interviews—some new, some taken from the 1999 PBS documentary Our House, and many featuring Russo-Young herself as either questioner or subject—Robin and Russo were a love-at-first-sight couple. Moreover, they shared a desire to have children. Despite the less-than-progressive attitudes of the late ’70s and early ’80s, they chose (after reading a homemade informational pamphlet) to go the artificial insemination route. On the recommendation of close friend Cris Arguedas, they picked gay bachelor Jack Cole to be the donor for Russo (producing Cade), and selected hunky gay attorney Steel as the donor for Robin (begetting Ry). Robin and Russo clearly informed both men that they would not have a relationship with their biological progeny. And for a time, the duo and their daughters lived a carefree New York City life, along the way establishing an unusual-yet-conventional family dynamic—Robin stayed home with the children; Russo earned a living as a lawyer—that served as a template for many other lesbians looking to do likewise.
Things took a turn when preschool-age Cade started inquiring about her father, which compelled Robin and Russo to begin going on occasional vacations with Jack and Tom. Before long, Jack dropped out of the picture due to alcoholism. Yet Tom remained, and despite warnings to remain impartial toward both of the girls, he soon became particularly attached to Ry. That development, plus mounting friction between Tom’s husband Milton, and Robin and Russo, soon upset the status quo. Really sending this situation into a tailspin, though, was Tom’s subsequent request that he bring Ry and Cade, without their moms, to meet his family, who knew nothing about their existence. When Robin and Russo balked, viewing this as Tom overstepping his boundaries, Tom struck back in extreme fashion, filing a lawsuit in family court to acquire the full parental rights he now coveted.
Thus a pioneering legal battle was born, with Robin and Russo striving to overturn centuries of American legal precedent (and prejudice) by proving to a judge, and the world, that they were Ry and Cade’s parents, and that biology alone did not make Tom a father to Ry. Those notions may be accepted today, but in the 1980s it was a different story, and much of Nuclear Family focuses on the duo’s courtroom fight to define parentage as something not wholly dependent on genetic factors. As such, it functions as a cautionary tale about the potential disaster of allowing sperm donors into their offspring’s lives—since, as with Tom, feelings can develop and change, no matter the handshake agreements initially struck by all parties—as well as the attendant necessity, in all custody cases, of creating explicit legal boundaries from the get-go.
More poignant still is Russo-Young’s candid confrontation of the confusion, sadness and terror that gripped her during this time period. Caught in a virtual tug-of-war between the mothers she adored and wanted to be with, and a man whom she cared about but regarded as a threat to her family’s unity, Russo-Young became a pawn in a game she hadn’t agreed to play. In Nuclear Family, she boldly revisits her psychological and emotional turmoil as an adolescent and teenager, all while capturing the angry and defensive perspectives of her parents and, equally as heartrending, the pain suffered by Cade, who naturally took Tom’s conduct as a rejection of their own bond. Through forthright and sometimes prickly conversations with her relatives, attorneys and Tom’s friends, as well as a collection of sweet and illuminating home movies and photos, Russo-Young conveys the thicket of fear, resentment, selfishness, and desperation that ensnared everyone involved.
That includes Tom, whom Russo and Robin still loathe (“Fuck him,” spits the former in a climactic third episode moment), but whom Russo-Young courageously attempts to comprehend as more than merely a selfish monster intent on sabotaging everything she held dear. The sensitive and skillful consideration with which Russo-Young examines Tom—via chats with his loved ones, as well as a farewell VHS video he recorded for her—is unbearably moving, driven as it is by a mature understanding that Tom had relatable and sympathetic motivations to pursue his terrible and unjust course of action. A late revelation that, when tussling with Russo and Robin in court, Tom was harboring a secret of his own, adds simply another agonizing layer to this complex domestic stew, one in which conflict was bred by unwise decisions, imperfect impulses, and everyone’s panic over losing that which was most precious to them.
Russo-Young’s investigation of her clan’s fraught circumstances (which eventually resulted in appearances on TV talk shows like Leeza and features in Time magazine and The New York Times) is elevated by her willingness to acknowledge, and embrace, life’s often ugly messiness. Meanwhile, in clips of her youthful cinematic adaptations of The Wizard of Oz and Sleeping Beauty—some of them co-starring Tom—she taps into the fundamental way that filmmaking has helped her process her rollercoaster experiences, including with this project. For wounds as deep as these, there may be no such thing as true closure. However, with Nuclear Family, Russo-Young performs a therapeutic family excavation that doubles as a gracious act of both forgiveness, and saying I love you.