Kids Are All Right, The (United States, 2009)

July 24, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Kids Are All Right, The Poster

The kids may be all right, but the adults aren't. That's the underlying premise of Lisa Cholodenko's unconventional family drama - a motion picture that uses wry humor and uncommon sensitivity to underscore some of the difficulties inherent in any family, regardless of how unusual the structure may be. However, although many of the ideas and emotions expressed in The Kids Are All Right have universal implications, Cholodenko resists the urge to close things out in an artificially clean manner. When the 104-minute running time has expired, there's a sense of satisfaction that the story has been told, but by no means are all the loose ends neatly knotted. In fact, the untidiness of the ending hints at greater honesty than one might uncover when catharsis is achieved for all characters by squelching ambiguity.

Joni (Mia Wasikowska) is 18 years old, and she's about to fly her well-feathered nest. Her final summer at home has arrived - college beckons with its seductive allure of freedom. Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is her 15-year old half-brother. The two share the same father but have different mothers. Joni's biological mom is Nic (Annette Bening), while Laser's is Jules (Julianne Moore). Nic and Jules are lesbian spouses; over the course of their more than 20 years together, they have shared everything, including the rearing of their children, both of whom were conceived through artificial insemination using an anonymous donor. Joni and Laser are aware of the circumstances of their conception and, now that Joni is "of age," she approaches the sperm bank with a request to meet her biological father. Despite being caught off-guard when he receives a call out of the blue informing him that his two "children" would like to meet him, aging hippie Paul (Mark Ruffalo) is intrigued by the situation, and agrees. Soon, he, Joni, Laser, Nic, and Jules are sitting down at a table eating a meal and, while Paul bonds with the children and Jules, Nic becomes resentful and suspicious. She is territorial, and Paul is entering an area where, in her opinion, he has no right to insert himself. Things are made even more complicated when meaningful glances between Jules and Paul lead to some decidedly heterosexual activities.

That the spouses in this movie are of the same sex hardly matters when it comes to examining the forces that dominate their relationship - similar issues can be found in more conventional families. Nic, a doctor, is a classic Type A personality - controlling and inflexible. Jules, on the other hand, is more submissive and used to repressing any dissatisfaction she may feel with the relationship. A scene illustrates the fracture that has developed. One evening, Nic prepares a bath for Jules. After the younger woman has sunk into the warm water, Nic leaves the room to get some bath oils - and doesn't return. Finally, wondering where her partner is, Jules leaves the bath and ventures downstairs to discover Nic on the phone with a patient. This apparent lack of consideration typifies, at least in Jules' mind, what their marriage has become. Her affair with Paul carries with it a whiff of the inevitable. If it wasn't him, it would have been someone else (male or female). She craves attention and affection - two things she is not getting at home. The fact that her choice happens to be the biological father of her children adds confusion to the mix.

The primary dynamic explored by The Kids Are All Right is the one that exists among the trio of adults, but it is by no means the only one. Cholodenko illustrates how normal the relationship is between the kids and their moms. Until Paul enters the picture, this is a stable family with well-adjusted children. Nic and Jules have to deal with all the issues that parents face, including concerns about whether their son might be gay and whether his best friend represents a bad influence. The interaction that occurs between Paul and the children is handled with care and sensitivity. His first meeting with Joni and Laser is awkward but, after several additional encounters, they have formed the beginnings of a connection.

The performances are solid across-the-board, although there are a few instances in which Annette Bening comes across as unnecessarily shrill. Julianne Moore, recovering from an awkwardly over-the-top portrayal in A Single Man, creates a character of depth who is sympathetic because of her flaws (rather than in spite of them). Mark Ruffalo has the most difficult part in that he must show how Paul's bohemian lifestyle is transformed by the sudden influx of unexpected emotions. His role is the most openly comedic but there are scenes that require exhibitions of heart and soul. Mia Wasikowska displays more talent than she was given the opportunity to show in her star turn in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.

Cholodenko, whose previous features include the pretentious High Art and the sudsy Laurel Canyon, pitches The Kids Are All Right at right level - there's enough light comedy to leaven the melodrama and keep it from becoming overbearing. Also, although a "big event" appears to be foreshadowed by certain conversations, the integrity of the screenplay is not damaged by an overwrought occurrence. The Kids Are All Right remains consistently low-key and true to itself throughout the circumstances it investigates and the emotions that arise from them. It's proof that not all American filmmakers have lost the capacity for making honest character-based dramas. "All Right" may be an understatement when defining Cholodenko's accomplishment here.

Kids Are All Right, The (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 2010-07-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1