Lesbian couple Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) have the perfect life. Their two children, Joni (Mia Wasikowski) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), conceived by artificial insemination, have grown up into well-adjusted teens. However, this idyllic life is about to change when the children decide to seek out their birth father in “The Kids Are All Right.”
What can you expect of a film starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore but fine performances and believable characters. Director Lisa Cholodenko garners this and much more in this delightful little dramedy about a family whose life is turned upside down. When Joni turns 18, Laser begs her to contact the sperm bank whence they came and have them, in turn, contact the birth father about a meeting with his children – that he did not know about. Taken aback, at first, Paul (Mark Ruffalo, decides, what the heck, and agrees. Like a snowball rolling down a mountain, his presence among the family gathers size and speed and threatens to tear them apart.
This sounds like serious stuff, and it is, often. However, there is a pervading mirth throughout the film that holds the family together despite the chaos introduce by the appearance of Paul. It is this combination of angst, family bonding and fine performances by all of the principals, along with a well-crafted screenplay (by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg), that make this an entertaining film for mature audiences.
I already noted Moore and Bening’s terrific performances, but the others in this ensemble cast – Ruffalo, Wasikowski and Hutcherson – give full dimension and feeling to their characters, too. The kids are, indeed, all right as Joni and Laser act like teenagers (but a bit more mature than the norm) as they explore the new world of having a father. Ruffalo maintains an enigmatic air as he alienates Nic and flirts, dangerously, with Jules. Theirs becomes an unusual, in conventional terms, triangle that, eventually, turns out okay. (Hey, what else would you expect?)
“The Kids Are All Right,” with its femme leads, may be seen as a lady flick, but this is far from the case. This is for adults, male and female, who are up for a solid, family-bound story. I give it a B.
Long married lesbian couple Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) have their ups and downs like any other married couple. Nic, a doctor, leans on the red vino a bit too strongly and expects perfection from those around her. Jules has never really found her calling and isn't exactly getting support on her latest venture, landscape architecture. But their whole world is turned upside down when their youngest, Laser (Josh Hutcherson, "Zathura," "Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D"), enlists the help of his older sister Joni (Mia Wasikowska, "Alice in Wonderland"), to find their common sperm donor and father Paul (Mark Ruffalo, "Shutter Island") becomes an unwitting catalyst to ensure "The Kids Are All Right."
Cowriter (with Stuart Blumberg, "The Girl Next Door")/director Lisa Cholodenko ("High Art," Laurel Canyon") moves from the artistic circles which anchored her first two films to shine her light on middle class over and under achievers, but her fascination with reconfiguring expected sexual partnerships into something a little different continues. This is kind of like the 2010 version of 1982's "Making Love," not for breaking new cinematic subject matter, but, like the earlier film, for treating it so commercially. Cholodenko examines human behavior with insight and wit and has been blessed with one of the best ensemble casts of the year.
Nic bugs both Joni and Laser about their epistolary duties, but Laser's friendship with Clay (Eddie Hassell) is the more important issue on her and Jules's radar. They don't approve and they suspect Laser is in a homosexual relationship and hasn't come to them to talk about it. When they find Laser and Clay watching one of their own gay male pornos, they try to get him to talk and he turns the tables on them. Jules's 'explanation' as to why two lesbians would watch gay male porno is not only hilarious, but does dual duty when Jules falls into Paul's bed. And that's what the moms are shocked to find out - Laser isn't gay, but he has found his dad.
Paul's background is a lot like Jules's, without the college degree. He owns a quirkily named locavore restaurant which is supplied by his own organic gardening. He's also hot, drives a motorcycle and has women in his sphere constantly making themselves available. His recent bedmate, Tanya (Yaya DaCosta, "Honeydripper"), is his place's stunning black hostess. Having already won Joni's admiration (Laser detects a smugness which makes him resist), Paul comes to dinner where he clicks with Jules but gets all kinds of diss from Nic (it's never spelled out, but personality and looks assign Nic as Joni's mom and Jules as Laser's). Nic's taken aback when Jules takes on Paul as her first landscaping customer and Paul begins to spend a lot of time with their kids, encouraging them to make their own ways. But just when Nic, who feels Paul has been usurping her family, gets on board (via a hilarious Nic/Paul duet to a Joni Mitchell song), she makes a discovery that makes the whole rejiggered world come crashing down.
Benning's having a fabulous year in indie films, even if her Nic is very similar to the emotionally uptight Karen of "Mother and Child." This is the far better film and it gives the actress opportunity to go to more places. She's funny and frustrating and makes us appreciate how Nic's strength is being rocked to its core as she loses control. Moore brings a little of her "30 Rock's" Nancy to Jules, but replaces Nancy's forthright aggression with a self confidence that Nic's been eroding over the years. The two actresses create characters who are night and day and yet go together like, well, night and day. You can feel a long lived in marriage between them. Wasikowska's good as their starry and bright-eyed daughter on her way to college. Joni's smart, but naive. Hutcherson, a young actor with a string of family friendly films to his name, has been given a chance to show more range and runs with it. He's got that surly teenaged boy thing going on yet remains likable. His own revelation as to Cody's true nature is a cheer worthy moment and his tentative bonding with dad is real. And Ruffalo - well Ruffalo hasn't been this interesting on screen since his 2000 breakout role in "You Can Count on Me." He buries any smugness beneath layers of charm and testosterone and if he acts selfishly he does it with such enthusiastic wonder we can forgive him. That his character is seemingly abandoned at film's end is the one place where "The Kids Are All Right" feels wrong. Otherwise Cholodenko and Blumberg have written a great story with great dialogue, the kind that can be hilarious without ever breaking character.
The production is beautiful. Nic and Jules's home is L.A. chic, as is Paul's Wysiwyg restaurant with its interior open courtyard and his rustic bachelor home and Igor Jadue-Lillo's ("Passengers") cinematography accentuates the colors of sunshine and sky. The usually unique Carter Burwell lets down a bit with a score that suits the material but fades from the memory, but the film's soundtrack is more front and center anyway.
While "The Kids Are All Right" does share themes with the lyrics of "The Kids Are Alright," it's a bit of an odd title, but if the similarity to The Who song's name grabs attention for this worthwhile film, well then that's all right with me.
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