Even growing up in the most normal of families, or so I've heard, there seems to come a time when the most well adjusted teenager will begin to ask questions such as "Is this all there is?" and "What's it like in so and so's family?"
The setting for writer/director Lisa Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg's The Kids Are All Right isn't what most Americans are quite ready to consider "normal" yet, centered around the lesbian household of Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) and their two kids, 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Upon her 18th birthday, Joni gets pressured by her younger brother to seek information regarding their birth father (Mark Ruffalo) and, before long, what had been a relatively normal household is turned upside down.
It would be a mistake, a grave one, to consider The Kids Are All Right a "lesbian" film of any other kind of political statement...not that there's anything particularly wrong with such a film. However, there's much more than sexual orientation going on in The Kids Are All Right and to dismiss it too easily would cause you to miss a truly delightful, entertaining film that will resonate with virtually anyone who can identify with questions about what it truly means to be a family.
The vast majority of The Kids Are All Right lingers in a state of "almost" perfect, a tremendous compliment rather than a modest slight. It would have been easy, actually lazy, to have turned this film into a tour-de-force of human conflict and drama, but instead Cholodenko, a lesbian and parent herself, sails unflinchingly into the oft-dramatic and funny goings on that occur when a household that is desperately clinging to a facade of normalcy is forced to remove its layered upon masks of tradition and ritual.
As Nic, Bening gives yet another of her long history of masterful and disciplined performances. A surgeon and the breadwinner in the film, Nic is arguably the least "human" of the characters and yet Bening infuses the woman with such a richness of humanity that it becomes quite impossible to be anything but deeply drawn to her subtly cracking facade as the sperm donor, 'er father, of her children suddenly enters her life and, even more distressingly, enchants her children and intrigues her partner.
Hollywood has been trying for several years now to figure out how to use Mark Ruffalo, an abundantly gifted actor who seems to have been pegged as the generic "nice guy" in a romantic comedy. Here, we have the fulfillment of Ruffalo's promise with a performance that is so resolutely winning and inviting that it's difficult to imagine any other actor having pulled it off. A freespirited restauranteur with a bent towards social responsibility that doesn't quite include domesticity, Ruffalo's Paul finds himself intrigued and increasingly drawn to a semblance of domestic bliss.
Given more freedom and breadth of emotion, Julianne Moore is simply inspiring and stunning in her level of vulnerability and the ways in which she moves to the rhythms of those who surround her. It's a performance that looks and feels effortless, yet couldn't possibly be this effortless.
The fine ensemble cast is rounded out with tremendous sibling chemistry between Mia Wasikowska, who continues to marvel, and Josh Hutcherson, who continues to grow beyond his kiddie films of years past.
While Cholodenko and Blumberg gift the film with crisp, realistic dialogue and character development, they do occasionally fall into a style and rhythm that feels just a bit "too" right and occasionally lacks the authenticity that exudes from the majority of the film. Igor Jadue-Lillo's camera work gives the film the feeling of existing within a facade, while Julie Berghoff's production design complements it all quite nicely.
A favorite at Sundance this past year, The Kids Are All Right isn't quite the cinematic masterpiece that most critics would have you believe with its occasionally lacking dialogue and self-awareness. However, it is a wonderful example of what happens when you blend a near perfect cast with stellar direction and a story worth telling.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic