There are so many pitfalls that Lisa Cholodenko’s family dramedy The Kids Are All Right could have fallen into. Turning it into a “gay” movie. Straying too far into either light-hearted comedy or heavy-handed preaching. Overblowing the problems of a well-to-do, progressive upper middle class family. Tying together the ending too neatly, too pat. Cholodenko and her writing partner Stuart Blumberg pull off an impressive tight-rope act to create one of the most enjoyable, heartfelt films you’ll see this summer. There might be a few wobbles along the way, but we’ll give them a few points for the difficulty of the routine.
The kids in question are Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). The two are half-siblings, with each of their mothers, Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) having mothered one of them, but both with sperm from the same anonymous donor. Laser, 15 years old, for whatever reason feels the urge to track down their biological father, convincing Joni, who just turned 18 and will soon be heading off to college, to contact the sperm bank for them. The donor turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo) an ex-hippie type who dropped out of school because it was just a bunch of people “repeating ideas back at him that he could just read in a book.” Paul owns his own organic co-op restaurant which he runs using produce from his own organic co-op garden, the picture of laid-back Californian liberalism. Oh yeah, he “loves lesbians” too.
Nic and Jules are wary of this intrusion into their family life, and not without good reason; they are the ones who have put 18 years of work into raising these children, and Paul’s attempts at becoming a father figure smack of an entitlement that he hasn’t really earned. But both Laser and especially Joni take a liking to Paul, followed by their more earthy, unmoored mother, Jules. Jules and Paul share an emotional neediness, a necessity of constant affirmation which of course leads to the two having sex.
Where the film goes from there is what makes it feel so unique, so real, so unstructured. In a more traditional Hollywood family drama, the inevitable kiss-and-make-up ending is visible a mile away; here, we have no idea where exactly Cholodenko is going. In real life, even if we can sympathize with every side of a conflict, we know that things never end like they do in the movies.
These characters are exquisitely written; if there is any fault in Cholodenko and Blumberg’s subtle script, it is in just a few small moments when they seem to be grasping to keep things comedic. It’s an unnecessary touch; any film that opens to the bounding, plucky guitars of Vampire Weekend is never going to be able to take itself too seriously. Likewise the performers generally paint their roles in small gestures rather than broad strokes; only Julianne Moore glides a little too close to caricature with some of her eco-babbling, but it’s not a deal-breaker considering the rather flighty nature of her character. Ruffalo has made a career out of scruffy-but-sensitive, unmoored and slightly clueless guys like Paul. Annette Bening, too, plays to her strengths with the controlling (some would say uptight) workaholic Nic. But, as we gradually realize, Nic may be the only real adult in the picture, and Bening conveys the responsibility and frustration that comes along with that burden beautifully.
We already knew that Moore, Bening and Ruffalo were extraordinary actors; The Kids Are All Right is more of a coming-out party for Hutcherson and Wasikowska (last seen as Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and who also received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for That Evening Sun last year). Around the middle of the film we get somewhat lost in the love triangle between the parents, forgetting for a moment who is really at the center of all this (at least if the film’s title is to be any indication). In the pitch-perfect final sequence of Joni arriving at her college dorm, Wasikowska seizes the film for a moment, reminding us that yes, the adults are a bit wacko and the family as a whole has probably forever lost the status quo. But the kids are all right.
Now in some small, indie theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars