The summer movie season is known for a lot of things… explosions, CGI overload, superheroes, and sequels to name a few. What it doesn’t really see a lot of are films dealing in human emotions, raw truths, and real life. The Kids Are All Right is one of the rare exceptions to that rule (that I just made up), and aside from implying that anyone would be sexually attracted to Julianne Moore it just may be the most honest film of the summer.
Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson) are California teens living with their two moms. Nic (Annette Bening) birthed Joni and Jules (Julianne Moore) birthed Laser, both through artificial insemination from the same sperm donor, and life has been fairly conventional up until now. Joni has recently turned eighteen and at the constant nagging of her brother has contacted the sperm bank in the hopes of meeting their biological father. Paul (Mark Ruffalo) is a laid back restaurant owner in a casual relationship with an employee (the stunningly beautiful YaYa DaCosta), and he’s both surprised and intrigued at the idea of meeting the end result of his past donations. Nic and Jules reluctantly welcome Paul into their lives and soon the calm and orderly existence they thought they had is turned upside down.
The Kids Are All Right is a bright and beautifully acted look at what it means to be part of a family. The ups, the downs, the relationship with your partner and kids… the specifics of it may seem like ingredients for a niche indie picture or even worse, a “message” movie about tolerance, equal rights, and the evil liberal agenda, but it never even comes close to such things. Instead the movie is simply about the challenges of family life. Nic is a doctor who enjoys both her wine and her control streak a bit too much. Jules is the more relaxed and carefree half of the relationship who floats between “careers” with a mix of indifference and enthusiasm. Together they’ve raised their kids as well as any parent could which means there’s plenty of room for doubts and concerns. Joni has just graduated high school and is mere months away from heading off to college, and as nervous as she may be her parents are even more terrified. And then there’s Laser who seems well adjusted but may be exploring his sexuality in some unexpected ways. And by unexpected ways I mean with a ginger of course.
As wonderfully written and directed as the film may be the picture’s real power is in the acting. All five of the lead performers are giving some of the best work of their careers. Granted, that’s not saying much for Hutcherson, but even with a limited background he’s never seemed as natural as he does here. Wasikowska shines as the child on the cusp of adulthood torn between home and the outside world, and she manages more with a quivering lip then many of her peers do with their entire body. Ruffalo is almost always the most watchable and intriguing actor in any of his films and that trend doesn’t change here. His character is an inexcusable dick at times but you can’t help but want to forgive him. A lesser actor (with harder features and without his sad, puppy eyes) would have a hard time accomplishing the same.
Bening and Moore both give fantastic and believably real performances as a couple who love each other, warts and all, and can convey that long history together with little more than a glance. I joked about Moore above (no I didn’t), but she imbues Jules with such a goofy and effortless charm that you could easily see yourself falling into her smiling embrace. But as good as everyone else is the performance of note here belongs to Mrs Dick Tracy herself, Annette Bening. As the most authoritative adult of the three Nic is tasked as straight-man to the more loose and casual performances of Moore and Ruffalo and the childish behaviors of the kids. She never becomes unlikable though, and as her grip on things begins to crack it’s a slow tremble of emotion that begins to spill out. A certain dinner table scene is a masterclass in itself in the art of acting as Nic navigates some surprising revelations and comes out wounded and scarred on the other side.
Director and co-writer Lisa Cholodenko has garnered attention on the indie film scene for a few years now with films like High Art and Laurel Canyon, but The Kids Are All Right marks a subtle but noticeable shift in both style and effect. Whether due to her continued maturity as a filmmaker or to the addition of a co-writer in Stuart Blumberg (The Girl Next Door), Cholodenko’s latest finds the warmth and (often laugh out-loud) humor in her characters without sacrificing any of the intelligence or indie credibility she’s previously earned. She has a sharp eye for talent and is comfortable enough to let the actors do their job in the world she’s created. Her world feels real, her players feel authentic, and her story is universal. It also just so happens to be about lesbians.
Cholodenko has managed something fairly impressive with The Kids Are All Right. She’s created a personal and intimate film that’s ostensibly about an unconventional situation, but the end result is an incredibly accessible and relatable film that will be recognizable to anyone who’s ever been part of a family. You’ll most likely laugh and cry as the characters inspire and frustrate in equal measure. It’s funny, sweet, sad, painful, and difficult to see come to an end. In short, it’s what being part of a family is all about.
The Upside: Surprisingly funny; strong acting from all five leads with special kudos to Bening, Wasikowska, and Ruffalo; a movie about ‘family’ as opposed to one about a strictly ‘gay family’; solid soundtrack selections
The Downside: Ruffalo’s Paul is used more as an instigator of conflict than a fully complete character in his own right
On the Side: If YaYa DaCosta’s name sounds familiar it may be because your girlfriend made you watch an episode of America’s Next Top Model season three.