Stars shine in fresh, perceptive family comedy ‘Kids Are All Right’
Nic and Jules are a devoted, long-married couple raising their two kids in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Their family has its quirks and issues, but the kids respect their parents, each other, and themselves. That the movie in which they all appear, The Kids Are All Right, is not about the fact that Nic and Jules are a lesbian couple, is just one of the things that make Lisa Cholodenko’s family comedy so fresh, fun, and appealing. These kids may have two moms, but this perceptive tale of family dynamics should resonate with anyone who’s ever been a parent, a spouse or a child.
Cholodenko is no stranger to unorthodox family units. In her last film, the excellent Laurel Canyon, Frances McDormand played a freewheeling record producer who scandalized her grown son by her affair with a much younger man. In Kids (which she co-scripted with Stuart Blumberg), Cholodenko continues to create wonderful characters rarely seen in mainstream films: strong, responsible women who have made it into middle age with their humor and sexuality unimpaired.
Nic (Annette Bening), a doctor, is the organized, uptight partner, always needling the kids to do their chores and write prompt thank-you notes. Messier, intuitive Jules (Julianne Moore) hasn’t quite figured out what to do with her life (her business ventures never pan out), and always cuts the kids some slack. They provide a loving, stable home for college-bound Joni (winsome Mia Wasikowska, from Alice In Wonderland) and 15-year-old Laser (engaging Josh Hutcherson). Each of the moms gave birth to one of the kids using sperm from the same anonymous donor, to make them all as closely related as possible.
Laser has been hanging out with a destructive doofus pal; they experiment with drugs in a home dominated by a loud, macho, roughhousing dad. Now that Joni is 18, Laser asks her to call the clinic and find out who their own biological father is. Reluctant at first (“This could really hurt the Momses’ feelings”), Joni agrees because it means so much to her brother. Without telling the moms, they arrange to meet “donor dad” Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who runs a small, trendy restaurant a few neighborhoods away, and is astonished to learn he’s sired two grown kids.
Paul is a hit of pure testosterone, a scruffy, bearded, footloose bachelor who gets his hands dirty in his organic garden, rides a motorcycle, and has an ongoing thing with the restaurant’s sexy receptionist, Tanya (YaYa DaCosta). But, thanks to the affable Ruffalo, he’s not a bad guy, gamely trying to provide whatever the kids need from him. When the moms find out about Paul (“I don’t want to time-share our kids,” fumes Nic), and enter into a tentative cordiality with him, he does make one spectacularly bad decision (and he’s not the only one), which has repercussions in all their lives.
Cholodenko manages a light, gentle, yet achingly real tone throughout. Paul’s awkward attempts to offer advice based on life experience are sure to be resented, while Nic suspects he’s trying to “steal” her family. The hurtful way teens can turn rebellious and snippy in an instant, the fear of the long-married that their mates no longer find them attractive, the festering resistance of a mild spouse to a controlling alpha partner, the parental melancholy of backing off and letting go, all are limned with wry humor and compassion.
None of these plot threads depend on the couple being gay; each character would go through exactly the same emotions if the central couple were straight. (Which makes the film heroic in the matter-of-fact way it taps into such universal feelings.) But Paul’s straight male energy has an even more intrusive impact on this particular family, which Cholodenko uses to sly effect, both comic and dramatic (when Paul realizes where his own presumptions have gotten him).
Bening is absolutely marvelous as Nic, assuaging her rising alarm with red wine and acerbic wisecracks. Moore is disarming as a dizzy earth mother trying to get a grip. They make the most of these complex characters in a film bubbling over with irresistible humanity.
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT ★★★1/2 Watch film trailer >>>
With Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, and Josh Hutcherson. Written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko. A Focus Features release. Rated R. 107 minutes.