Nuclear Family tells the story of how lesbian couple Sandra Russo and Robin Young created, and then fought for the integrity of their family. A would-be idyllic childhood for daughters Ry and Cade, each conceived through a different sperm donor, turned traumatic when one of the donors sued for paternity and visitation rights for Ry.
The series documents events from the 90s but the treatment of queer folks in the courts and the heavy patriarchal biases present in the narrative mirror modern-day attacks on civil liberties even as we celebrate pride month in the US. Told through a combination of interviews and home videos filmed over 15-20 years, director and subject of the series, Ry Russo-Young, explores her complex relationship to the trial.
“I had been trying to tell this story for about 10 years,” Russo-Young explains. “And I was thinking because I’m a narrative filmmaker, I should make a narrative film. But I didn’t really understand the story and what I wanted to say…And it really wasn’t until I was pregnant with my second child, that I realized the stakes of the story, and that telling it as a documentary would allow me to not know the answers.”
Despite the emotionally charged and personal nature of the trial, Russo-Young remains non-prescriptive in her treatment of her subjects, even those she once perceived as boogeymen through the lens of her childhood.
“We are, I think, as a culture obsessed with heroes and villains,” she explains, “and this kind of clarity of good and evil. And life is just so much more nuanced and complicated. To be able to embrace that in a cinematic medium feels important to me.”
Throughout the filmmaking process, Russo-Young strove to keep her own perspective off the screen for as long as possible.
“I didn’t want to make a me and my problems documentary. And I was really afraid of being self indulgent,” she intimates. “The early cut had almost no me in it. I felt like my moms and Cris and Tom were so charismatic as people. I am never going to compete with that. So the less me, the better, was my perspective from the beginning…I remember one of the producers said to me, ‘the cut’s amazing, but where’s Ry?’ Figuring out how to put me in, in a way that was non-obstructive and non-self-indulgent and truthful, was a delicate balance.”
This approach matches the chronological storytelling of the series.
“The thinking was that when we’re talking about conception, it’s right before I was born. Even though I’m making the movie, you shouldn’t be aware of my POV, because it’s not really me,” Russo-Young explains. “As I come of age, and I develop my own voice, that’s when I should take over the movie, so to speak, because it basically mirrors my psychological experience growing up.”
With its subject matter, the series naturally evokes a great deal of emotion, and compels the audience to form opinions, even without asking. Russo-Young welcomes the dialogue, carefully positioning herself outside of the judgments of others.
“I realized early on that what people thought of the series said more about them than it did about the series. It was about them. And that’s great.” Russo-Young smiled. “Because what is the goal of art, if not to make you reflect on your own family or history or belief system? I could hold space for those people because I had stirred up something in them that I thought was incredible that I was so thrilled to have done because the worst response to anything you ever make is ambivalence.”
The series reveals much not only about our own hidden judgments, but also the oft-ignored flaws of heteronormativity and entrenched biases of our court systems. But amidst all that, Nuclear Family is ultimately a revelation of the overflowing love and pain that comes with family.
Nuclear Family is now streaming on HBO Max.