A film review by Craig J. Koban August 11, 2010

Rank:  #4


2010, R, 104 mins.


Jules: Julianne Moore / Nic: Annette Bening / Paul: Mark Ruffalo / Joni: Mia Wasikowska / Laser: Josh Hutcherson

Focus Features presents a film directed Lisa Cholodenko / Written by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg.

Lisa Cholodenko's THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT is a sublime indie diamond in the rough to be joyously discovered and savored.  It’s one of the very rare dramadies that manages to successfully marry together low key and thoughtful direction, atypically honest and natural lead performances, and a sophisticated, endearing, funny, and heartrending screenplay that never panders down to audience members with witless clichés and sitcom worthy predicaments.   Perhaps what truly sets it very far apart from other similar films about family dysfunction is how acutely observant and understanding the director is in regards to her flawed characters.  Cholodenko does not place them into neatly delineated, obligatory types.  She also strays away from applauding them or apologizing for them.   Instead of analyzing her personas, she simply lets us view them through the vacuum of their lives, which makes the film feel that much more authentic. 

The basic premise of this film could have been handled oh-so wrong under another director looking for cheap laughs and tawdry sensationalism.  THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT concerns two lesbian mothers with two teenage children that were born via artificial insemination.  One of the kids wishes to finally meet his biological father – the sperm donor – but since he’s not of legal age to do so he politely asks his legal older sister to assist him.  When everyone does ultimately meet and come together, complications ensue. 

The lowest common denominator approach to this material would be to make it a sermonizing pro-lesbian/gay marriage parable or a simple-minded farce about sperm donors.  THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT laughingly mocks those types of lazy descriptors: it’s not ostensibly a lesbo-melodrama nor is it a wacky, estranged sperm-donor daddy comedy.  There is absolutely no agenda to Cholodenko’s film at all: all it does – and does with a fine nuance and sensitivity – is to simply present a family unit, warts and all, in its entire normalcy.  The marriage presented in the film is as customary as just about any other – gay or straight – and Cholodenko wisely portrays the typical growing pains that accompanies this family.  The orientation of the parents is completely redundant: what the film is illustrating is that a stable, well adjusted, and caring family unit – whether it be maternally homo or heterosexual – can have road blocks that impede their journey towards happiness and fulfillment. 

The couple in question are Jules and Nic, played in career high performances by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening respectively, who are able to effortlessly evoke a pair of souls that have been together for two decades and are wholly devoted to one another, even when dealt with the foibles that beset all marriages.  Even though Jules and Nic unconditionally love each other, they could not be any more different.  Nic, a doctor and career-minded woman, is a tough talking, no-nonsense, and hard-drinking control freak…but a vulnerable and caring maternal figure nonetheless.  Jules, on the other hand, is more carefree and loose, which is reinforced by the fact that she has casually jumped from one career path to the next.  She feels that Nic has not emotionally nurtured her enough to discover who she is and what she wants to do with her life, whereas Nic feels that Jules is just aimlessly drifting through her existence without structure.   

Since having children was, obviously, physically impossible, the couple decided to utilize one sperm donor to impregnate the both of them.  Their offspring are the 18-year-old college bound Joni, named after Joni Mitchell, (played by the naturally beautiful and poised Mia Wasikowska) and her 15-year-old brother, Laser (Josh Hutcherson, an equally refined and wonderfully low key actor).  Laser decides one day that he would like to meet his biological father and, with Joni’s help, they manage to track the man down the through the clinic. 

The "donor daddy", so to speak, is Paul (played with a spontaneity, easy going swagger and sensitivity by Mark Ruffalo) that happens to be a swinging bachelor that runs and owns his own organic farm and restaurant.  The phone call between Joni and her “father” is a comedic highlight in the film: She, of course, is intrigued and giddy with the prospect of speaking with her father and Paul is equally compelled, but for as idiosyncratically groovy and carefree as he is, he finds himself struggling for words to describe his feelings about Joni’s family circle.  “Hey…that’s all right…I love lesbians,” he awkwardly deadpans to Joni over the phone.

Paul does arrange a meeting with Joni and Laser, and although the initial hook up is semi-uncomfortable for all concerned, they all seem compelled to meet again and spend more time together.  When news of this hits home the “moms” feel a bit broadsided by the appearance of a complete stranger in their kids’ lives.  Jules seems receptive to the idea of Paul inserting himself into the family’s comings and goings, but the inflexible and deeply suspicious of everything and everyone Nic is instantly disturbed by the prospect.  Even though Paul is outwardly a decent, well mannered, and pleasant enough man, Nic nonetheless sees him as an unstable influence on a household that she has been desperately trying to make stable for years.  It does not matter, because Nic finds it hard to stop her children from further interacting with Paul, but her deeply entrenched mistrust of him comes full circle when she suspects that Jules may have more than just a business relationship with him.  Jules has been hired by Paul to re-landscape his backyard, but the more time she spends with him the less time is spent, let’s just say, on grounds keeping. 

The film’s script – courtesy of Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg – is outstanding for how it breathes with such a frank honesty and compassion for its characters.  The people in this film say exactly what we would say if under similar circumstances and they interact in refreshingly candid ways that never feels constrained by the mechanizations or conventions of genre conceits.  The film finds a truth and wisdom with its personalities and it does so with care and sensitivity.  Again, Cholodenko is not advocating a gay message here, nor is she wasting time with how her gay characters struggle with how society sees them.  Jules and Nic’s relationship and family have a universal look and feel: two loving soul mates that have articulate, smart, inquisitive, but insecure teens that all unequivocally care for one another even while trying to get past everyday problems that places families in momentary tailspins.  After awhile, Jules and Nic’s orientation never draws attention to itself, nor is it a distraction.  The way Cholodenko humanistically grounds this family in the minutia of the mundane and crucial events that befall their lives is utterly thankless.  The film becomes, in the end, an observational study of the institution of marriage itself.

You will not likely find more finely attuned, compassionate, and textured performances in any other film this year.  It would have been so deceptively easy for lesser actors to portray Nic and Jules as annoying gay archetypes and caricatures, but Bening and Moore are too smart, savvy, and superbly empowered actors for that type of nonsense.  Moore creates a deeply self-doubting, anxious, and flawed woman that has to suggest deeply rooted love for her spouse and kids while simultaneously suggesting a peculiar attraction to Paul (even she can't seem to put it into words herself: she’s knows she’s gay, but can't seem to turn herself away from Paul’s advances).  Bening herself has never been more quietly authoritative and strong-willed in a role.  Yes, she is the breadwinner of the family and has an obsessive compulsive desire to control every facet of her family’s everyday existence, but she is also not a woman without sensitivity and feeling.  Just watch Bening totally command one key moment during a late dinner scene where she has just learned a horrible and pride-damaging revelation:  Cholodendko drops down the sound and holds an excruciating close up of Nic for what feels like minutes; Bening reveals volumes of hurt emotions and wounded regrets with her just her eyes and demeanor.  The actress has never been more raw and genuine.   

The remaining performances are sly for perhaps how they might be overlooked under the shadow of Bening and Moore’s titanic work.  Ruffalo arguably has the trickiest character dynamic in the film to effectively pull off, playing an affable and well-meaning man that is perhaps too naïve and ignorant to understand how he’s negatively affecting Nic and Jules' family unit.  Paul is not a loser or a fiend or home wrecker, even though he commits some actions that would invite such criticisms: he’s just a nice guy making some dreadful errors in judgment.  The kids in question also are equally well drawn as characters:  Wasikowska may not have had much to work with in Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND earlier this year, but here she reveals herself to be an actress with a soft spoken naturalism and exquisite composure (she does not so much act in scenes as much as she inhabits them).   Hutcherson is a similarly assured and honest performer that, like Wasikowska, presents a teen character that shows more considerate wisdom than most movie youth figures would about having same sex parents, but for as regular and stable as Laser and Joni are they still have their share of troublesome questions (like, in one hilarious scene, when Laser matter-of-factly asks his moms why they like watching male-gay porn).   

The film concludes with an ending of heartrending tenderness and conciliation for the family, but that is not to say that it’s a tidy closure; it’s ambiguous in the sense that we are left somewhat unsure as to the future of certain characters.   Yet, it’s for reasons like that and so many others why THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT – an independently financed, $5 million little-engine-that-could character melodrama – is one of the year’s most involving, warm-hearted, droll, and delectably intelligent films.  It squashes expectations and absconds from slavishly compartmentalizing its story and characters.  It creates a wholeheartedly believable and familiar family dynamic made up of unfamiliar – to some - parts that echoes all of the fears, concerns, and miscalculations that typifies all families.  THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT may have an eccentric premise, but its core is straightforwardly presented and relatable, which is the key to its genius.   

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