Warning: Some Spoilers
Annette Bening, Kristin Chenoweth and Gabrielle Union all play women-loving-women in the film version of Augusten Burroughs’ bestselling memoir Running With Scissor, but you wouldn’t know it from the movie’s trailer. And unless you have a queer sensibility, you might also miss the fact that Augusten’s own character is gay. The trailer shows only hints at his sexual orientation via the flip of a scarf and the fact that as a child, he loved “shiny things.”
So how does one of the queerest mainstream movies of 2006, written and directed by openly gay Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy, get marketed without its queer flag flying high? “I don’t really know,” the openly gay Burroughs told AfterEllen.com a few weeks before the film’s premiere date. “I’m sure Ryan had a reason for that, but I’m not sure what that reason is. But I can’t imagine that many people would go to it without knowing something about the movie, because the book is so well-known.”
The book is indeed well-known, and it and sold well, too, residing on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 70 consecutive weeks. But unless you’ve actually read Running With Scissors or one of its reviews, you may not realize that after divorcing Augusten’s father, his mother had relationships with several women. The film does not shy away from these relationships, and in fact, treats them with the same degree of normalcy as everything else in Augusten’s extremely unconventional childhood.
Augusten (played in the film by Jack Kaeding as a 6-year-old and by Joseph Cross as an adolescent) grew up during the 1970s in western Massachusetts with his alcoholic and largely unavailable professor father (Alec Baldwin), and his narcissistic and depressed mother, Deirdre (Annette Bening), whose dream was to become a famous poet and be published in the New Yorker. Augusten’s real-life brother and some other characters who were in the book were left out of the film script, while other characters were combined into one.
At the age of 12, after his parents had split up, Augusten was sent to live with the family of his mother’s psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox). Both Dr. Finch’s psychiatric practice and his family were unconventional, eccentric and, to Augusten’s finery-loving eyes, appalling.
Augusten first meets Dr. Finch’s daughter, Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), at Dr. Finch’s office, where she works part-time. At their home, he meets Finch’s wife, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), and their youngest daughter, Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood).
Agnes snacks on dog kibble while watching television; Hope turns to the Bible for “Bible dips,” placing her finger on random pages to help her make decisions; and Natalie introduces Augusten to her father’s old electroshock machine as a fun toy. Dr. Finch, who has a room he calls the masturbatorium adjacent to his therapy office, makes pronouncements about his family’s future based on the shape and size of his bowel movements.
Then there’s Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), the 36-year-old patient of Dr. Finch who lives in a shack in the Finches’ backyard. Augusten, who already knew he was gay and had confided that to Natalie, enters into a sexual relationship with Neil, with Dr. Finch’s blessing.
When visiting his mother unexpectedly one day, Augusten discovers her in a sexual embrace with one of her friends, Fern (Kristin Chenoweth). Later, Dr. Finch sets Deirdre up with another one of his female patients, Dorothy (Gabrielle Union).
Eventually, Augusten, who got out of attending junior high due to a fake suicide attempt staged by Dr. Finch, left town and became a writer.
Running With Scissors is the feature film debut for Ryan Murphy, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed and produced the film. He and his crew exquisitely capture the ’70s feel, from the avocado green and harvest gold décor to the music. Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat” plays while Augusten and Natalie cheerfully smash the ceiling to create a skylight in the kitchen; Manfred Mann’s “Blinded by the Light” is heard in a scene depicting Deirdre’s increasingly disturbed moods.