By George Elkind
In the opening minutes of M. Night Shyamalan’s new thriller “Knock at the Cabin,” a little girl named Wen (played by Kristen Cui) is approached by Leonard, a hulking stranger (Dave Bautista), who offers to help her catch grasshoppers while asking about her life at home and school. Before we meet them, she announces that she has two parents over at the cabin nearby: Daddy Eric and Daddy Andrew — information Leonard, a second-grade teacher, receives with a studied, careful politeness. Her school counselor tells her it’s a good thing, she goes on, but the counselor’s overly enthusiastic tone conveys the opposite impression: that the performance of open-mindedness isn’t sincere.
Minutes later, we meet Wen’s parents: Andrew (Ben Aldridge), a wary, adamant human rights attorney, and Eric (Jonathan Groff), a more temperate but quite protective dad who spends much of the film concussed. It’s not the legitimacy of their queer-led family that’s under threat here – it’s the continued existence of the family itself.
Within minutes of its opening, the family’s woodland cabin is invaded by Leonard and his three companions, who explain that it’s important they find their way inside. After forcing their way through doors and windows, then subduing and tying the couple up, Leonard offers an aggrieved apology as his colleagues tidy up the space, explaining that they didn’t know what kind of family they would meet but that they needed to talk to them nonetheless. The motive for the invasion isn’t hate, they insist, but a revelation: a shared vision that told them, in quasi-religious terms, that an apocalypse would come if the family refuses to sacrifice one of their own by the following morning.
This collision, of one group bound by possible fanaticism with a family whose ties are cemented by deep love, echoes contemporary politics without lending credence to those skeptical of queer parents. The cohesion of the family, joined by still-scrutinized processes of same-sex marriage and adoption, never comes under question, running counter to most depictions of queer couples who choose to raise children, especially young ones.
In fact, depictions of such families in U.S. media, both on TV and in film, still seem quite rare. While watching Shyamalan’s thriller — which has been argued by some to be a conservative work for its sympathetic treatment of doomsaying extremists — I still struggled to think of films that treated queer family structures as matter-of-factly as this film does. While a movie like “Beginners,” released in 2010, may show a queer parent (and in this case a widower) coming out late in life, and something like 1996’s “The Birdcage” shows familial relations structured by absenteeism, these films pit queerness — in the classic sense of running against the norm — as destabilizing traditional structures of family life.
Far more common is the figure of the queer homewrecker, a character who, in honoring their own needs, threatens or upends longstanding family ties. (In this, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Transamerica” and “Transparent” all stand out, suggesting that trans characters remain disproportionately burdened with these associations). Alternatively, there’s the affirmative structure of something like Lisa Cholodenko’s 2010 film “The Kids Are All Right,” which expels an interloper who threatens its key family’s stability, thus affirming its queer family structure with a bill of ultimately good health.
For “Knock,” though, the queerness of the family, the presence of gay parents, is not the issue — but the response to those around them is. Frictions of queer life are acknowledged in both present-tense moments and in flashback, bolstering Andrew’s already justified skepticism of Leonard’s home-invading troupe.
In this and other ways, “Knock” accounts for social frictions accompanying queer life without letting them take hold of the film’s center. But when they are dealt with, it’s often with an unexpected sense of grace. For Shyamalan, a director not known for subtlety, small notes of truth ring out through shorthand gestures, especially in flashbacks.
In one scene of the couple first meeting Wen abroad, for instance, the couple claim to be in-laws instead of partners; in another, they endure a strained meeting with visiting parents. While these kinds of depictions — of white, cis and gay, financially stable couples in otherwise traditional family structures — could be considered assimilationist in their rhetoric, “Knock” makes clear that they’re not only rare but welcome, particularly when not presented as some ideal, preferred queer path. Instead, the film’s family life is normalized in spite of what they face. In offering a depiction that’s far from tokenistic while hardly being radical, “Knock” provides a testament to what we lack — and proof this should happen more often.