Positioned somewhere between sitcom and piercing human drama, “The Kids Are All Right,” is both overtly familiar and cutting edge.
A daughter is about to leave home for college, throwing her family into disarray. That’s the familiar part. What’s cutting edge is that her parents are a lesbian couple and her biological father, who enters the picture after she and her younger brother seek him out, was the anonymous sperm donor to each of her two mothers.
Director Lisa Cholodenko and her co-screenwriter, Stuart Blumberg, are pouring new wine into an old bottle, but their point seems to be that the new wine isn’t really all that new. Once you adjust to the offbeat dynamics, the family complications in “The Kids Are All Right” are almost reassuringly recognizable.
The parents are Nic (Annette Bening), a Los Angeles physician, and Jules (Julianne Moore), a waywardly employed homebody who wants to work in landscape design. Eighteen-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) are the children. Unmarried Paul (Mark Ruffalo) is the randy restaurateur and organic farmer who gets the surprise news from them that he’s a father twice over.
Ruffalo has had an uneven career since his breakthrough performance in “You Can Count on Me,” but here, as in that film, he’s in his element playing a character who is an amalgam of wily and lackadaisical. Paul has never really attached himself emotionally to anybody, least of all to a woman, and at first he regards his newfound offspring as curiosities. After their amiably tense (and well-written) introductory meeting, all he can think to say is, “Keep in touch.”
Nic and Jules are temperamental opposites, and their response to Paul, upon meeting him, is equally polar. Brusque and forthright by nature, Nic is immediately on her guard; Jules is much more sympathetic, and Paul, with his radar for female vulnerabilities, senses this and makes a play for her. Her dazed, guilt-ridden acquiescence greatly complicates an already complicated equation.
Cholodenko and Blumberg have chosen to present Joni and Laser as essentially all-American kids, complete with the usual adolescent all-American screw-ups. This is certainly preferable to the downcast way a more moralistic filmmaker might have chosen to portray them.
Still, I’m not sure it’s significantly better to present this extended family as essentially an avant-garde variation on Ozzie and Harriet and company. Arguably the most potentially interesting aspect of the movie is how Joni and Laser come to terms not only with Paul but also with their two mothers, and this is the part that is least successful. I think it’s because the filmmakers believe that the more recognizable this family is, the less alienating they will seem to mainstream audiences. It’s a political choice posing as an aesthetic one.
Although he has competition from Jules and, especially Nic, Paul comes across as the designated baddie. Does Cholodenko take a particularly punitive view of him because he is the film’s most conventional – i.e., assertively heterosexual – character? Ruffalo does a great job of humanizing this oversexed superannuated hippie but, in the end, he’s as bereft as Stella Dallas looking furtively in on her child through a locked window.
With all this working against it, “The Kids Are All Right” is still more than all right. Most familycentric American movies (and TV shows) are so earnest – so negligible – that by comparison, this one, at its best, seems almost Shavian in its wit. Cholodenko understands that the family, any family, remains a primal source for drama that is both mirthful and maddening. Grade: B+ (Rated R for sexual content, language, some teen drug and alcohol use.)