(2010) director Lisa Cholodenko
viewed: 08/14/10 at the UA Stonestown Twin, SF, CA
The Kids Are All Right is more than alright, it’s pretty darn good. A “dramedy”, if you will, about a contemporary family, a modern conundrum set with easily recognizable characters and issues. Very funny, at times painfully awkward and awkwardly painful, this is one of those films that will doubtlessly be around come Oscar time.
Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are a lesbian couple on the verge of an emptying nest. They have two children conceived through artificial insemination (each mom carried one of the children) from sperm from the same donor, the older of whom, their daughter Joni (played by Mia Wasikowska), is about to go away to college. Their son, Laser, played by Josh Hutcherson, is a typical 15 year old, bumming around with a friend who is not the best influence, but yearning a bit for some male presence in his very female-heavy life. It’s Laser who prods Joni to secretly seek out their biological father out of curiosity.
Their father is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who runs a local organic restaurant, rides a motorcycle, and exudes an easy laid-back cool, which belies his otherwise rather never fully matured adulthood. The kids, who are very “all right”, with Joni as a high-scoring scholar and Laser as a successful team sport jock, are very clean-cut and innocent, and are taken with their biological father. And he is taken with them. It’s a part of his life that has never come to fruition and these two lovely, intelligent kids bring a great spark to his life.
All the performances in the film are very strong, helped in no small part by the fact that co-writer/director Lisa Cholodenko gives all the characters depth and believability. They are all charming and lovely and flawed, and more than anything, they ring true.
What happens next, I’ll warn you, is a mild bit of a spoiler, so if you want to just go see the movie, you need not read on. But I want to discuss a thing or two about the full scope of the story. What happens next is that Paul is accepted into their world, a little begrudgingly by Bening’s character, the more serious of the two moms. Unfortunately for all involved, Moore’s character accepts him a little too readily, all the way to his bed and into a rather passionate brief affair. And this, as it’s discovered by Bening, forces the nuclear family to pull together to survive this threat to its health and to reject Paul and send him packing.
The beauty of the story is that all the characters have their issues, but those issues are not crippling typically. Bening’s Nic is a bit controlling and she drinks too much wine. Moore’s Jules is a little flaky and insecure. Ruffalo’s Paul is sweet, kind, and charming, but follows his masculine Id, when he should know better. The kids…, well, the kids are all right.
The point is that the film tells the story of a contemporary, perhaps modern version of the nuclear family, a real, recognizable group of characters, who represent a healthy and “normal” American family. And yet, like any family, they are vulnerable to the challenges of life, of enduring the marathon of marriage, of insecurities, mistakes, short-comings. And the story arc makes utter sense, even in their utter rejection of Paul after the affair and their attempt to heal and draw together again, even as Joni is off to university.
It’s a little hard not to feel kind of bad for Paul. He gets some pretty harsh treatment from Nic when he tries to apologize to Joni and Laser, hoping to maintain something with these biological offspring. He needs it. His life, as happy-go-lucky as it’s been has been lacking this element to give it meaning, which is something he has come to realize. But, at least as far as the movie follows the story, he’s lost it. And the rejection, as I said, makes sense, even in its harshness, particularly from Nic, but it’s still a bit of a bummer to see him unresolved and unhappy. He’s no villain.
But that’s part of what gives the film its “truthful” or “believable” character. While I wouldn’t call the style “naturalism”, I would say that it has a true sense of the world. Cholodenko’s characters are fully rounded and the story has poignance, particularly one might say in the present given the battle over gay marriage going on not just in California (but particularly in California). The poignance is perhaps in that this film isn’t at all “about” gay marriage (doesn’t mention it once), but rather in that it portrays the story of a family unit, not simple and idealized, but shown with its cracks and fissures as well as its strengths.