Review: In 'Nuclear Family' a Filmmaker Interrogates Her Own Family History

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday September 26, 2021

'Nuclear Family'
'Nuclear Family'  (Source:HBO)

In her penetrating, complex documentary series "Nuclear Family," filmmaker Ry Russo-Young turns the camera on her own family's fraught history.

The daughter of lesbian couple Robin Young and Sandy Russo, Ry found herself at the center of a family drama that ballooned into a national controversy that set a legal precedent when her biological father, Tom Steel, sued Young for parental access. Given that Tom's role had always meant to be that of a sperm donor and nothing more, Young and Russo viewed his suit as a betrayal. Ry, who was still very young at the time, was drawn into the emotional turmoil of the battle and came to view Steel as an "evil person" (depicted as the Wolf in one of her early films, a retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood") who was trying to destroy her family.

Now, as an adult, Ry sets out to interview everyone who's still alive and able to talk to her about the situation into which she was born and the way an agreement that initially seemed ideal unraveled. It's a complicated story with countless twists, turns, and wrinkles, and if the idea of telling it across three episodes seems like a matter of giving the tale too broad a canvas... well, watch for yourself, and see if you can resist binging all three episodes in a single sitting.

Among those Ry interviews — aside from her mothers and her sister Cade, two years older, who was conceived with the help of a different donor — is Cris Arguedas, the family friend who first suggested that Young and Russo try a DIY approach to getting pregnant with the help of a man's genetic material (but not his sexual services), and then helped them identify the donors they went with. As a close friend of Steel's, Arguedas saw the story from his side, as well as seeing how the drama affected Young, Russo, and their daughters. In a series brimming with different perspectives (lawyers, relatives, work colleagues), Arguedas seems like the most centered and even-handed voice, despite having also been touched by the emotional devastation of the family's crisis.

In certain ways, "Nuclear Family" plays like a real-life version of the motive "The Kids are Alright," in which a sperm donor father is drawn into the life of a family headed by two women, only to become emotionally disoriented, overstep, and end up being rejected and reviled as an "interloper." Steel, similarly, comes to be viewed as the "outsider" who is trying, in his privileged male way, to impose his own will on "the family we wanted, we planned," as Russo has it.

To an extent, it's true: Steel, a lawyer, knew that the courts had a history of ruling against lesbian mothers out of anti-LGBTQ+ bias, a prejudice that was sometimes propped up with a ridiculous pseudo-scientific rationale known as "lesbian fusion." (The film brilliantly exposes this concept as the empty claptrap that it is.) But Steel also had a genuine, deep, and perfectly natural affinity for his own daughter, and the documentary doesn't try to water down or skirt past the powerful emotions that mothers and father alike were acting out of.

More than a powerful documentary about a same-sex family sailing against the homophobic headwinds of the 1980s and '90s, "Nuclear Family" is a potent, resonant drama about a family — family, full-stop, no qualifiers needed — caught in the cross-currents of primal, but incompatible, emotions and goals. The enduring universal truths the series plumbs will make deep emotional sense no matter what the viewer's own sexuality or family background might be.

"Nuclear Family" streams on HBO.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.