The Kids Are All Right
Director : Lisa Cholodenko
Screenplay : Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Annette Bening (Nic), Julianne Moore (Jules), Mark Ruffalo (Paul), Mia Wasikowska (Joni), Josh Hutcherson (Laser), Yaya DaCosta (Tanya), Kunal Sharma (Jai), Eddie Hassell (Clay), Zosia Mamet (Sasha), Joaquín Garrido (Luis), Rebecca Lawrence (Brooke), Lisa Eisner (Stella), Eric Eisner (Joel)
Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right is a conventional dramedy about an unconventional family. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore star as Nic and Jules, a long-term lesbian couple with a pair of teenage children, 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson), who they birthed using an anonymous sperm donor. At Laser’s behest, Joni asks the sperm bank for contact information about their biological father, and they end up being put in touch with Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a scruffy self-made restaurateur who had no idea that his donating sperm for “sixty bucks a pop” back in the early ’90s resulted in not one, but two kids. He agrees to meet them, they hit it off (awkwardly, at first), and soon he is sliding into a father/friend role, much to the chagrin of Nic and Julies, who aren’t sure how to deal with their children spending more time with Paul than them.
To their credit, Cholodenko and cowriter Stuart Blumberg (The Girl Next Door) deal with the story’s tricky personal, sexual, and political terrain with a generally deft touch that softens the film’s timely agenda of “normalizing” a long-term lesbian couple with children. Despite a number of speeches throughout the film, it’s never preachy, but instead relies on the characters to ground the issues and make them feel real, rather than manufactured; that is, the characters are presented as people first, gay second, and the idea of family is paramount to all involved, even Paul, whose lifelong alley cat freedom suddenly feels not so exciting when compared to the grip of true familial connection. Nic and Jules’s relationship feels real because it comes with all the peaks and valleys of any long-term commitment, in which true love often becomes so comfortable that it becomes dangerously invisible. The film’s comedy is helped by the fact that they are polar opposites: Nic is a driven, controlling, perfectionist doctor, while Jules is a laid back artist who has never reached her true potential, as Nic would put it. But, their opposing sides mesh into a functional, loving couple, and Joni and Laser have clearly benefited from it, even as they bear some of the hallmarks of their respective mother’s bad tendencies (Joni is too driven to make grades and succeed while Laser is in constant danger of falling in with the wrong crowd).
Cholodenko directs with the kind of confidence that doesn’t require much accoutrement, and although she sometimes slides into realms of the overly cutesy and ironic, she has thankfully dispensed with the heavy-handed pretension that made her directorial debut High Art (1998) such a slog. She is at her best in orchestrating family scenes in which she can cut back and forth among the characters, underscoring their interpersonal dynamics and drawing our attention to how things both said and not said define them. When Paul is brought over to their house for a casual lunch so Nic and Jules can meet him, the scene has a real sense of frizzy tension that you want the characters to cut through; Nic tries too hard to show off what a great parent she is by all but forcing Joni to read her graduation speech in front of Paul, while Paul slouches too deep into his own smug view of the world (“I’m a doer,” he proudly proclaims to explain his dropping out of college). Paul has a way of speaking before he thinks, but that’s part of his charm and why Joni and Laser (but particularly Joni) feel drawn to him. About halfway through the film a major complication develops that I won’t reveal here, but suffice it to say that it threatens not only Paul’s growing place within the family, but also Nic and Jules’ relationship and their relationship to their kids. This complication is the result of characters giving in to real and understandable feelings, but in ways that are short-sighted and ultimately destructive. It is at this point that The Kids Are All Right is at its best, as it drops some of the slicker and easier moments of comedy and digs deep into the way that bad decisions send shock waves through families and rupture what had previously seemed to be unbreachable.
Unfortunately, resolving this issue also brings the film to its most problematic moves, including a wafer-thin, awards-baiting speech by a major character summing up the film’s primary theme (marriage and family are hard work) while also offering a too-easy path to reconciliation. It also involves the necessarily rejection of Paul, who is branded an “interloper” despite having been invited into the family by all of its members. The film’s treatment of Paul is curious, as he is presented throughout as a flawed, but decent guy--certainly immature for his age, a bit too self-satisfied, and dangerously libidinous, but also intelligent, resourceful, and, most importantly, genuinely good to Joni and Paul (he is particularly good at small things, like making sure that Joni wears a hat while gardening to keep from getting sunburned). Yet, you can’t help but feel that he is scapegoated at the last minute, kicked to the curb in order to maintain the fidelity of the pre-existing family structure, a move that is arguably necessary given the damage he has caused, yet still feels dramatically wrong.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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