Friday, July 23, 2010
Review: "The Kids Are All Right"
"The Kids Are All Right" is a movie about families. In this case, a family with two lesbians, but that's not what director Lisa Cholodenko's delightful comedy/drama is about. Rather, it uses the particular circumstances of a clan with two women at the head of the household to explore how people can grow apart, even while they still love each other.
The thing that stands out about Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) is not that they're gay, but how spectacularly normal they are. They're middle-aged, been together since their 20s, have a couple of teen kids: Joni (Mia Wasikowska), 18, whip-smart and about to go off to college, and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), 15 and still figuring himself out. That often comes with having a name like Laser.
Nic is a doctor, precise and comfortable with routine, while Jules is a bit of a dreamer and drifter, career-wise. She studied to be an architect, tried a few jobs that didn't take, took a decade or so off to manage the kids, and is now looking to start a landscaping business.
Nic is used to being in charge at work, and we see how that's inexorably carried over to home life. Jules isn't content with just being someone's housewife, and subtly rebels with little digs about Nic's (over)fondness for wine and tendency to micro-manage.
Their existence gets turned inside out with the unexpected arrival of Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the anonymous sperm donor who fathered both Joni and Laser. Laser wants to find out who is dad is, but gets Joni to call the lab since he isn't yet of age.
In a quirk, Joni ends up taking an immediate shine to Paul, while Laser feigns profound indifference. Paul is in his late 30s, rides a motorcycle, and runs a bohemian little restaurant featuring food from his organic farm. Played by Mark Ruffalo in ultra-cool mode, Paul's the lovable rebel every teen would die to have as their father.
But the integration of Paul into this alternative family isn't destined to be smooth. Nic takes one look at his scruffy leather jacket and listens to his story about dropping out of college, and decides Paul isn't the best role model for the kids. Laser could use a father figure, but clearly wants to have Paul jump through a few hoops to audition for the job.
Cholodenko, who co-wrote the screenplay with Stuart Blumberg, veers the tone of the film around wildly but not unintentionally. At first, I got the sense she was having some fun with the lesbian couple's bourgeois ways and New Age-y talk: "I know I haven't been my highest self." "We wonder if he's the type of person who's going to help you grow."
And early on, it sure seems as if Nic is being set up to be the fall guy. Her brittle uptightness and the way she benevolently dominates Jules is meant to be off-putting for the audience. When she goes to Defcon 2 over Paul giving Joni a ride on his motorcycle -- with a helmet, slowly -- it sets off a full-blown conflict about not letting her girl become her own woman.
But through careful observation, and a crisis that threatens to drive the family apart, the film helps us realize that Paul, while undeniably charismatic with his twinkly pirate smile, isn't ready for the responsibility of a family suddenly foisted upon him.
Paul thinks he is; he's so skilled at being a charmer, he even fools himself.
Nic has it nailed when she dubs Paul an interloper: He's somebody who merely visits in people's lives -- including his own.
Bening and Moore are their usual selves, giving performances with presence and dimension. We don't for a second question the idea that they're longtime companions and lovers, people who have built a life together and are shaken by the cracks revealed in the foundation.
"The Kids Are All Right" starts out being a movie about the kids, and slowly pans over so the relationship of their parents becomes the main focus. It's a finely-drawn, rich examination of love and disaffection, and how they can exist side-by-side.
3.5 stars out of four