Traditional really is overrated. One scene at a time, Maya Newell’s documentary following four children with same-sex parents shuts down bigotry in an almost effortless manner. A child of gay parents herself, she finds her own way of thoughtfully telling their stories. To watch them is to see how these families get on just as well as the next, to the point that the focus is not the question of gay marriage and gay couples having children, but of why these questions are even being asked.
Gayby Baby runs through the lives of these unique Australian families – different not necessarily just in terms of parentage but in terms of the idiosyncratic characters of the kids themselves. 11-year-old Gus is obsessed with professional wrestling – both avidly watching WWE matches and practising his own moves; 12-year-old Ebony has a passion for singing and is working towards gaining acceptance into a prestigious performing arts school; Matt, also twelve, is at an age where he is questioning religion – both his belief in God and how religion aligns with the nature of his family; and 12-year-old Graham, who only started speaking from the age from five, is valiantly soldiering on with his mission to improve his reading skills.
One aspect of Newell’s documentary that is particularly telling is just how staggeringly mature her four main contributors are. They are still very much kids – they sometimes get in trouble and get scolded, and sometimes don’t necessarily know best. But for such young individuals on the cusp of their teenage years they have a admirably open and inquisitive perspective – certainly more so than a lot of kids their own age – and a straightforward way of rationalising and accepting situations. To but scratch the surface, some prime examples of this include Gus’s insight on his conception and how he navigates his masculinity, and the practical and emotional support Ebony gives her mothers in caring for her epileptic baby brother.
In addition to this we are touched by Graham’s patience in striving to overcome his learning difficulties. It would be so easy, especially as a young kid, to become constantly frustrated or give up altogether but he always goes back at it. And football player Matt is unsure how he feels about God, particularly in the context of a religion that views the way his mothers are as sinful. He seems confused as to why his biological mother remains steadfastly religious despite this, but although there remains this confusion the fact that he has the emotional intelligence to ask and work through these questions is indicative of a certain youthful wisdom. On the way, Matt joins his mothers on an important political campaign, even actively contributing to their cause.
Perhaps the maturity and insight of these kids is a side effect of coming from a non-traditional family unit; of having parents who explain sensitive matters and actively encourage open perspectives in a way some families wouldn’t give much thought to. Then again, perhaps not. Maybe it is an attitude distinctive to these families in particular, which other families – of both straight and gay parentage – also share. But, in view of all the hysteric outcry about the destruction of the family unit and harm to the child, it does highlight a glaring irony in that the Gayby kids seem just as, if not more, well-adjusted than most kids their age. In terms of damage or disadvantage, there’s absolutely nothing to see here. Newell doesn’t have to construct this message; all the proof is played out on screen.
But all controversies and politics aside for one moment, Gayby Baby is beautifully shot, bringing vivid realism to the fore with a combination of wider shots surveying the situation at hand and tighter ones providing more intimacy. This affectionate normalcy is particularly resonant when the families are generally hanging out or we are seeing extremely ordinary aspects of an average household, like leftover dishes or toys strewn on floors. Newell weaves their stories together in no particular pattern, we simply drift from place to place. And these warm, close-knit families are delightful to watch for who they are as people, let alone anything else.
Gayby Baby screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2015