The Kids Are All Right is a film about marriage itself, an institution with challenges that are universal. Director Lisa Cholodenko’s film, which she wrote with Stuart Blumberg, is so canny in its insights and so agile in its negotiation of complex emotions that it deserves to stand on its own. It is outrageously funny without ever exaggerating for comic effect. Families like this are hardly uncommon in the real world. However, Ms. Cholodenko and Mr. Blumberg have discovered in this very modern arrangement a way of refreshing the ancient and durable wellsprings of comedy.
Tightly wound doctor Nic (Annette Bening) and loose-limbed landscaper Jules (Julianne Moore) have an ease with each other at home in Los Angeles. Their two kids — 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) — are at ease with them. Hutcherson is decent as the plucky son, while Wasikowska is as self-assured as she is clever. Each mother gave birth to one of the children, and because the same anonymous sperm donor was used, they’re half-siblings.
Home life is casual, happy, and upper-middle class. Like many couples, they’re going through a little mid-life crisis. Joni, about to leave for college, is trying to figure out the terms of her fast-approaching independence. Laser follows along behind his best friend, a goofball named Clay (Eddie Hassell). Laser’s wide-eyed fascination at the sight of Clay rough-housing with his father registers curiosity and barely articulated longing. What would it be like to have a dad?
To help him find out — and to shut him up — Joni tracks down the sperm donor, who turns out to be a restaurant owner and organic farmer named Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Paul has never married, has no other children. He’s cool in a way that involves no conscious effort. He thinks it’s cool to meet his kids, it’s cool their moms are married, and thinks it’s cool they invite him for dinner.
Nic and Jules are not won over at first, but he manages to connect with both Joni and Laser in ways that their moms can’t. His position as a sympathetic outsider grants him insights that the family members lack. Joni, Laser and Jules come to see him as a confidant and counselor. The actors are to die for. Bening and Moore nail every nuance of a relationship going adrift. Ruffalo is dynamite as a man keeping himself at a distance. Learning that Jules is taking up landscape design, Paul hires her to design the garden area sloping down behind his house in what looks like the Hollywood Hills.
As they bring in bags of soil, Jules and Paul have sex. This causes a great deal of unhappiness when it’s discovered. There are more feelings of betrayal on Nic’s part, and confusion from Jules and Paul. They didn’t expect their secret to be discovered, and were not thinking of getting married or anything. Paul’s apparent fecklessness that arouses Nic’s suspicions is precisely the openness and sense of freedom that attracts Jules.
Without his intending to (for he is a man wholly lacking in guile), Paul becomes a human wedged in-between the two women. This tests their love to the limits. Cholodenko is wise to keep her tone light. The Kids Are All Right isn’t an average comedy, but it is a comedy — and fondly satirical of Nic’s tendency to be quite serious.
I refuse to call it a “gay film.” This is a romantic triangle happening to involve these three people. What interests the director is who they are. Moore and Bening are superb actors here, evoking a marriage of more than 20 years. Nic is obviously more of the mind, and Jules is more of the heart. The Kids Are All Right is a wise, sensible and extremely moving film about mutual affection, responsibility, sharing lives, growing up, and growing old. It is frank and often hilariously funny.
The performances are all close to perfect, which is to say that the imperfections of each character are precisely measured and honestly presented. There is great music too, both on the soundtrack and, in one extraordinary scene, sung a cappella at the dinner table. The title is a musical reference to a song by The Who (a good choice for all kinds of reasons). The film is absolutely irresistible.
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