Lisa Cholodenko: Queer Representation and Beyond

Laurel Canyon, released 21 years ago today, is a drama about love, family, and pop music, written and directed by the one and only Lisa Cholodenko. 

Writer/Director Lisa Cholodenko is best known for her 2010 film The Kids Are Alright, about life in a queer family as the kids get ready to leave the nest.

Lisa’s debut feature film was High Art (1998), about a young 24-year-old, Syd, who develops a relationship—professional and otherwise—with her upstairs neighbor, Lucy, when they begin working together at a well-known photography magazine. The film premiered at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. 

Director/screenwriter Lisa Cholodenko takes a woman right out of Joni Mitchell’s lyrics & breathes new life into her.

Lisa’s next film was Laurel Canyon (2002). This film is about a young couple, Sam and Alex (played by Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale), who move to LA to pursue a medical school residency and a PhD in genomics, respectively. They move in with Sam’s mother (played by Frances McDormand), whose life as a partying record producer turns Sam and Alex’s own lives around in ways they never would have expected. 

The film (and particularly Frances McDormand’s character) is inspired by Joni Mitchell’s album Ladies of the Canyon; as FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner puts it: “Director/screenwriter Lisa Cholodenko takes a woman right out of Joni Mitchell’s lyrics & breathes new life into her.”

Next came The Kids Are All Right (2010), a film that received incredible critical acclaim and put Lisa’s name permanently on the map. In The Kids Are All Right, Annette Benning and Julianne Moore play a married couple — Nic and Jules — with two teenagers, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska). 

When Laser finds the sperm donor who is his biological father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), and Paul meets the whole family, they all grow unexpectedly close to him. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, despite having a significantly smaller budget than the other nominees. 

The Kids Are All Right is not only a wonderful film, but it is also culturally important because it is one of the first mainstream films to depict a same-sex couple raising kids. Raising a son with another woman herself, Lisa surely found inspiration from her own experiences, and also saw the importance of this type of representation. 

Lisa has also directed many beloved television series…

Lisa has also directed many beloved television series, including Olive Kitteridge, a series starring Frances McDormand (thus continuing Lisa and Frances’ artistic partnership). Based on the novel of the same name by Elizabeth Strout, this miniseries is about a woman, Olive, her husband, Henry, and her son, Christopher. 

Consisting of four parts depicting four different time periods, Olive Kitteridge depicts Olive’s struggles with her family and with the world around her, due to the fact that she is a complex and at times difficult person. In the words of FF2 Contributor Katusha Jin: “Perhaps the audience may know someone like Olive Kitteridge—a person who comes across as bitter, antisocial, and filled with hatred towards everyone around her. But Cholodenko makes sure that this is not all that we see. It’s never as simple as that.”

As a brilliant storyteller and a pioneer in queer representation, Lisa Cholodenko is a powerhouse in the industry. From Olive Kitteridge to The Kids Are All Right, Lisa’s films are not to be missed. 

© Julia Lasker (3/28/2023)


Read Katusha Jin’s tribute to Lisa Cholodenko here.

Read Jan Lisa Huttner’s review of Laurel Canyon here.

Read Jan Lisa Huttner’s review of The Kids Are All Right here.


Featured photo: Suzanne Tenner – © 2010 Focus Features

Tags: High Art, Laurel Canyon, lisa cholodenko, olive kitteridge, queer filmmakers, the kids are all right

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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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