Review: Nuclear Family, Ry Russo-Young on her own family

the Russo-Young family in Nuclear Family

In Nuclear Family director Ry Russo-Young turns the camera on her own family history. She grew up in a dramatic, groundbreaking family situation made famous by a lawsuit. Now fortyish, she’s finally ready to piece it together in this 3 part series on HBO Max.

Nuclear Family begins in the 1980s. That’s when Ry’s two moms, Robin Young and Sandy Russo met and fell in love. This was long before same sex couples could marry or adopt, and long before families with same sex parents were commonplace.

Robin and Russo found two gay men who were willing to be sperm donors and they had two children: Ry and Cade. They had signed documents from the two men saying they had no responsibility or rights to the children.

Ry Russo-Young and Tom Steel in Nuclear Family
Ry and Tom Steel

Robin and Sandy did allow the two girls to see the men on occasion. They cut off Cade’s donor because he was an alcoholic. Up to the time Ry was 9, they sometimes visited her donor, an man named Tom Steel.

When Tom Steel changed the arrangement by suing to be legally declared Ry’s father and to be able to have her visit him in California alone, things changed. Ry was 9, Cade was 11, and the family felt under attack. The legal situation in the country at the time favored patriarchy and the laws of biology where definitions of family were concerned.

The family with Tom Steel in Nuclear Family

There were 4 years of legal wrangles over this, which ended with Robin and Russo keeping their family intact. This was surprising considering the laws at the time. Their story was national news, on TV talk shows, and in newspapers and magazines. It had an effect on LGBTQ history, the definition of family, and laws since that time.

By the time all the legal arguments were finished, Tom was dying of AIDS. He sent home videos and a video of himself to Ry. He tried to explain why he did what he did.

Ry put the videos in a closet and didn’t look at them for years. She spent her teen years trying to blot out the memory of all that upheaval. Only recently has she felt ready to deal with the emotions and memories from that time. She has a marriage, two children of her own, a career. She took a look.

She interviewed her moms, her sister, friends on both sides, lawyers, and others who knew about the case and their family story. I’m really simplifying the story in my summary. It’s well presented and emotionally complex in the series. I found the series touching and significant.

The fact that Ry Russo-Young turned out to be a writer/director/actor/producer and in possession of the images and information needed to tell this unusual family story makes it even more fascinating.

Watch the trailer.

Author: Virginia DeBolt

After many years as an educator and writer, Virginia retired from working life. She's always loved a good movie or TV show and wants to use her free time to talk about them with you now. She's Old Ain't Dead!

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