Filmmaker Ry Russo-Young Talks 'Nuclear Family,' Her Personal Doc Streaming on HBO Max

by Steve Duffy

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday October 11, 2021
Originally published on October 7, 2021

A promotional photo for "Nuclear Family"
A promotional photo for "Nuclear Family"  (Source:HBO Max)

"It was a real appendage," Robin Young recently told the New York Times about the camcorder her daughter Ry Russo-Young discovered when she was 13. "She took her camera everywhere and took photos and movies everywhere."

Some of that footage can be seen in "Nuclear Family," Russo-Young's three-part documentary streaming on HBO Max, that follows her family history and her part in a landmark court case.


In the early 1980s Young and her partner Sandy Russo used sperm donors to conceive two children, Ry Russo-Young and Cade, her older (by a year) sister. When she was nine, Thomas Steel, the man who had donated the sperm for Russo-Young's conception, sued her mothers seeking visitation rights. The lawsuit lasted for four years and seriously impacted the family at a time when LGBTQ family rights were non-existent. Because Russo was not Ry's biological mother, she was not considered a legal parent and the law deemed her a stranger to the conflict; she was not allowed in the courtroom. Steel, who lost the initial judgment but went on to win on appeal to the State Supreme Court, never enforced the order and only saw Robin Young once more before he died.

While the 39-year-old, Hollywood-based Russo-Young has made such teen dramas as  "Before I Fall" and "The Sun Is Also a Star," this documentary marks the first time she told her own story on film.

"At its heart, this story of epochal conflict is also a tale about empathy," reads a press release for the documentary, "as Ry investigates the ambitions and desires of her moms, her sperm donor, and all their allies and enemies as she struggles to hear and accept their divergent perspectives. In a world of deeply polarized thinking, 'Nuclear Family' proposes a way of understanding conflict that resonates with anyone who struggles with issues unresolved within their own families, their own lives and in our broader world."

EDGE spoke to Russo-Young about her moms, her memories on the lawsuit and how she feels about opening her life and her parents in such a public way.

Robin Young and Sandy Russo
Robin Young and Sandy Russo  (Source: HBO Max)

EDGE: "Nuclear Family" is incredibly personal; why did you decide to tell your story, and in this way?

Ry Russo-Young: The truth is I couldn't find any other way to do it. I felt that a documentary series would allow me to reach out to people on Tom's side and hear their perspectives in an effort for me to get a better and deeper understanding of what happened. At the same time, my moms are such incredible storytellers and knew they would do well. I would be able to have them tell their story. Through all of that, I would, by virtue of directing, be able to filter it through my own lens.

EDGE: Since I am in Boston, can you tell me a little more about your parents' Boston origin story?

Ry Russo-Young: My mom, Robin, grew up in Newton, Massachusetts. I never remember if she went to Newton North or Newton South. She went to one of them. After she had graduated from college, she was living in Boston and working as a nurse's assistant, I think. Russo was living in New York and drove up to Boston to visit her friend Cookie and that is how they met.

EDGE: When you announced you were going to make this documentary was everyone on board?

Ry Russo-Young: I had been filming my family since I picked up a video camera at age 10. So, there wasn't a clear moment where I said, "Okay, I'm making this documentary." It was a gradual process of collecting materials for many years with the intention of making something, but I didn't really know what that was. I knew it was something about my family, and I wanted to explore these themes. Certainly on, Cris, Jacob, and Nancy.

Ry Russo-Young in a still from "Nuclear Family"
Ry Russo-Young in a still from "Nuclear Family"  

EDGE: How do you parents feel now that their story is back in the spotlight?

Ry Russo-Young: My moms certainly had some trepidations. It triggered some forgotten emotions at first. I think some of that was because they were afraid of how the media would respond to their story. For so many years, they had to be on the defensive. They had to explain their family and they weren't treated like a real family. So, they did have some PTSD from that. The response has been so incredible because people do see them as a family. As you're saying to me, 'How do your parents' no one would have said that 10 years ago. No one called them my parents. They'd say what do you want me to call Robin and Russo? The whole tenor of how this of our conversation would have been different just by virtue of the way that the world was back then. I think it's incredibly validating for them. They've lived through so many years of what felt like the Dark Ages and now we're really in a different time now.

EDGE: Was it easy to convince those that were outside of the family circle to participate?

Ry Russo-Young: They all took quite some convincing, and we had a lot of conversations in advance of being on camera. It definitely was not easy! It was just the process of getting to understand each other and mainly me communicating what I was doing and why and being transparent about my intentions. I really had no agenda going in other than to be open to hear what everybody said. I think that Nancy, Cris and Jacob, we're pretty responsive to that once they were able to hear me out.

A still from "Nuclear Family"
A still from "Nuclear Family"  (Source: HBO Max)

EDGE: What was the most challenging part of making this?

Ry Russo-Young: The challenge was wearing two hats - the filmmaker hat where I had to understand what I needed from a footage perspective and a storytelling perspective, but then also from a subject perspective. Being a character in this series itself was a challenge because I was so emotionally vulnerable and I was actually going through all of this well, while I was filming it, so wearing those two hats at the same time and jumping back and forth between them was pretty challenging.

EDGE: For you, what has this experience taught you as a parent, daughter, sister, and filmmaker?

Ry Russo-Young: I think making this movie made me aware of just how fast our lives are. When I look at the series, I see so many years collapsed down into 3 hours. I see my life in 3 hours, and it's made me really stop and appreciate my children. I want to spend these precious moments with them while they're still young and cherish the moments and the people that I love. Because of this my moms, my sister and I have a deeper appreciation for my family and the people that we love.

A still from "Nuclear Family"
A still from "Nuclear Family"  (Source: HBO Max)

EDGE: Why do we need more female filmmakers?

Ry Russo-Young: I think we need more everything filmmakers. We need more Iranian filmmakers, we need more trans filmmakers and we need more filmmakers that offer diverse perspectives on our world.

EDGE: How do you hope your family's story will inspire the LGBTQ community and anyone who is still fighting for equally for all?

Ry Russo-Young: The most moving thing to me in this process is the reaction from the viewers: straight families, gay families, all kinds of family configurations have approached me and told me how much they relate to the series and how they see their own family in my story. I think in terms of progress, seeing yourself being portrayed on screen makes us relate and unites us all ultimately.

EDGE: What's next for you?

Ry Russo-Young: I am in the very early stages of a of making a limited fictional series of this story. I know you would expect me to be finished with it, but I'm not. It would be quite different from the documentary. I think in some sense, telling this story has freed me up to continue to look at the story differently and understand it.

"Nuclear Family" is available to be streamed on HBO Max.