A film review by Craig J. Koban August 11, 2010
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
2010, R, 104 mins.
2010, R, 104 mins.
Jules: Julianne Moore / Nic: Annette Bening / Paul: Mark
Ruffalo / Joni: Mia Wasikowska / Laser: Josh Hutcherson
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.