(Originally published on In Review Online.)
The debate over the 1989 children’s book “Heather has Two Mommies” seems like a cultural millennium ago, but that doesn’t mean that the era has ushered in the kind of social acceptance or progressive politics one would have expected. Instead it has been a mixed bag of uphill climbs and road bumps epitomized by the current seesaw battle for gay marriage in California. Befuddling hate mongering politics masquerading as moral high ground certainly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but small signs point to the fact that society (with a little help from the law and a more rational Supreme Court) may be ready to move on. Acting as both an innovator and a reactionary, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right is a welcome sign of the times: a film full of vivaciousness about a family with two women at the helm where (gasp!) politics are nowhere to be found.
Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) and their two teenage kids, Laser (Josh Hutchenson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska), are an average family in every way with the exception that Nic and Jules are lesbians. But no one seems to care, including Laser’s skate punk friend who uses the word ‘faggot’ as if oblivious to its meaning beyond a slur. Nic and Jules’ marriage is far from perfect, but it is even farther from unusual. The comfort of trite bickering and the ease of mutual appreciation represent a typical, if not stereotypical, twenty-year-plus relationship, regardless of gender. Nic is the mother of Joni and Jules is the mother of Laser, but both were born using the sperm from the same anonymous donor. Laser pressures Joni, who just turned 18, into pursuing her adult privilege of contacting their donor father. Enter Paul (Mark Ruffalo), an earthy and virile urban farmer named who owns a restaurant. The kids meet Paul on the sly with the assumption that it would not go beyond one visit. But opening that genetic door leaves lingering questions. In an attempt to be open and sensitive to their kids’ needs, Nic and Jules invite Paul over which culminates in Paul hiring Jules to do some landscaping and seemingly sending the group down the road to alternative family bliss. The easy-going Paul dives head first into his role of friend and father to the kids and libido leaning confidant to Jules. Nic—the breadwinner who wears the type A pants in the family—is the odd woman out and is rightly suspicious of the relationships her family is building with Paul.
Every moment in this film sparkles with a refreshing humor and sincerity. Whether it’s Jules sharing an overly rational explanation for gay-man-porn to Laser or Joni inarticulately expressing disappointment in Paul, The Kids Are All Right never loses its bubbly veracity. Cholodenko enlists five actors who make this film not only extremely watchable but also entirely believable. Bening and Moore embody the affectations of a couple to a tee. Their California characters fall somewhere between the “L Word” and “Weeds” and “Parenthood,” movie or TV show. Bening shines at a dinner party where she gives an a cappella rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” and moments later silently and personally confronts her partner’s infidelity. Unfortunately, the film’s need to be contrary and funny occasionally backs the characters into superficial corners. The tirade that Nic gives on composting, açaí and hemp milk is over-the-top in its attempt to be antithetical and humorous. Likewise, the script occasionally pulls back from melodrama, as if it might get burned. Jules gives an explanation for her poor sexual judgment (using the particularly poignant and well delivered line “marriage is a fucking marathon”) in a soliloquy to her family that is incredibly heartfelt, but shyly backs away by capping it with an innocent but mood killing quip about Russian novels.
The narrative set up is perfect for a late-in-life homo-reformation sermon, but thankfully Cholodenko asserts her team pride and hits a hard line drive, earning RBIs from all of us who hardly see orientation as a choice. But she doesn’t do so without acknowledging it. Privy of Jules’ infidelity, Nic asks the incredulous question that hangs in the air: “Are you straight now?” Even if her denial is not convincing, Jules shortly thereafter conclusively responds to Paul’s attempts to win her over by stating “Paul. I’m gay.” in such a no-duh tone that it nearly bowled over my wavering expectations with surprise. The tryst induced family crisis is handled with candor and honesty on an individual level, regardless of orientation. Paul quickly shifts from mysterious hunky donor daddy to thoughtless home-wrecker in the eyes of Joni and Laser and to self-indulgent ‘interloper’ in the eyes of Nic. Jules might be wearing the scarlet letter around the house, but her bond to Nic, Joni and Laser is not as easily dismissed as Paul’s—his harsh treatment is not about blame, but the emotional survival of the family.
Cholodenko received critical acclaim for High Art and Laurel Canyon, but The Kids Are All Right will likely be a breakout better defined once the awards season hits. In limited release, this subtle little family comedy was neck-and-neck with blockbuster supreme Inception in per screen revenue. Although every good film needs to hold its own outside of the cultural implications that might cushion critique, it is impossible not to take note of the assimilation of The Kids Are All Right (and how it differs from the love affair with Lisbeth Sanders.) Tearing the rainbow flag and the protest signs from our hands, Cholodenko has taken a bold step by making a film that moves an entire community beyond martyrdom and indignation, shifting, ever so slightly, the image of lesbian couples and families to anything but abnormal. Although I have never subscribed to the cause-and-effect influence of popular entertainment when the debate is geared towards violence begetting violence, is there any chance that a populist drama can beget tolerance? Subversive in its normalcy, The Kids Are All Right triumphs with a refreshing take on the American family, propelled by a stellar cast and an uncanny knack for honesty, familiarity and wit.