REVIEW: “The Kids Are All Right” (***1/2)

Posted by · 11:04 am · February 17th, 2010

Annette Bening and Julianne More in The Kids Are All RightBerlin International Film Festival

A spry, sun-bleached and often rather sexy study of what makes a family in modern America, “The Kids Are All Right” breezes by so pleasurably it’s easy to forget what a daring and very necessary film it is. Gift-wrapping its smart sexual politics with kicky dialogue, bright visuals and a pleasingly messy tangle of relationships, Los Angeles-born auteur Lisa Cholodenko’s fourth (and finest) feature is her most mainstream to date, but makes a virtue of those concessions.

Since its deservedly buzzy Sundance premiere, you’ve probably already heard “The Kids Are All Right” described ad nauseum as a lesbian – or perhaps more coyly, liberal – drama. With the film having been adopted by Focus Features, who recently had success with “Brokeback Mountain” and “Milk,” it seems likely the tag will stick, particularly if award season beckons.

But such a label, however well-intentioned, does a disservice to Cholodenko’s admirable avoidance of social tract. Rather than hectoring its audience to accept its characters as normal, this film goes one better by doing just that, and not commenting on the matter any further.

Indeed, “The Kids Are All Right” is that rarest of beasts in American cinema – a film centered on homosexual characters throughout which nobody encounters so much as a raised eyebrow or a whisper of prejudice. Admittedly, we’re in plush L.A. suburbia here, not the red-state heartland, but in light of the recent Proposition 8 fiasco, Cholodenko wouldn’t have had to look further afield to comment more overtly on intolerance.

The conflict in Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg’s rich, barbed screenplay comes instead from sources universal to domestic drama of any persuasion: as a portrait of the irregular long haul of marriage, the self-bewilderment of middle age and a teenager’s first inklings of adulthood, the film should be wincingly relatable to anyone who has been in a nuclear family.

(from left) Josh Hutcherson, Mia Wasikowska and Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All RightJulianne Moore and Annette Bening play Jules and Nic, a fortysomething couple who have, over the course of two decades, crafted a comfortably conventional family environment for their two teenaged children, precocious high-school grad Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and jockish younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Each child the product of artificial insemination with one of their mothers, they have survived as a content family unit until 15 year-old Laser’s curiosity about his biological father throws a spanner in the works.

Unbeknownst to “moms” (the kids amusingly refer to them in singular form), Joni and Laser do some digging, and are quickly led to one-time sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo), now a hip organic restaurateur. A laidback bachelor beginning to feel commitment pangs, Paul is only too eager to attach himself to this newfound family, and it’s not long before all three parents meet.

But while Nic maintains a hostile resistance to this interloper, the easy rapport Paul builds with Joni and, less expectedly, Jules makes explicit long-simmering resentments and fragilities within the family.

Cholodenko takes full tonal advantage of this richly complicated set-up, veering from confrontational dramatics to frisky bedroom farce without ever pushing her characters into territory that feels ill-fitting or unreasoned.

She is, of course, aided in her efforts by an immaculately cast ensemble, with all three principals in rude form. Ruffalo’s dude-ish charm hasn’t been applied to a character with quite such intelligence and irony in some time, while, playing the more prickly, professional half to Moore’s flighty stay-at-home mom, Bening has happily found a role that both accommodates and softens her trademark stridency.

Bening perhaps relishes Nic’s sour asides a little too theatrically in some early scenes, but finds deeper resources as the character loses her composure, peaking with a stunning, silent reaction scene to her wife’s own emotional outpouring.

(from left) Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson, Mia Wasikowska and Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All RightBest of all, however, is Moore, released from a recent run of roles that have boxed her (however effectively) into nervy constructs of femininity. Here she’s genially, even goofily, vulnerable as a woman faintly aware that she has outgrown the hippy idealism of her youth, but hasn’t settled on a suitable persona with which to replace it. Moore has never been looser or funnier on screen – a hilariously spacy response to an accidental kiss is a priceless Oscar-clip moment – which only makes her sober emotional self-effacement all the more startling when it comes.

As the film heads into awards season following a summer release, talk will presumably build about which of the women leads the film, but any such debate should be nipped in the bud: Moore and Bening are as democratic a partnership as the characters they play, each performance informing the other to an equal extent as they intricately map out their roles in the parenting game.

That said roles are so swiftly identifiable to the viewer is, in part, the principal triumph of this vastly entertaining and laudably generous film: lesbian, liberal or otherwise, we can all see ourselves in these characters, sometimes unflatteringly so. Hewing to the maxim of catching more flies with honey, “The Kids Are All Right” makes normality its  best argument for tolerance.

→ 21 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

21 responses so far

  • 1 2-17-2010 at 11:24 am

    Jim T said...

    What a lovely review and how nice it is that one more person likes this film. I can’t wait.

    You’re obviously having a very good time in Berlin. You liked many films. December might be Oscar’s favourite month but this year February might prove yours. I hope not, of course. ; )

  • 2 2-17-2010 at 11:40 am

    M said...

    I have heard good things about this film from Sundance.

    I want to see it, as well as Buried and Blue Valentine

  • 3 2-17-2010 at 12:28 pm

    Alex in Movieland said...

    So do you think both of them could get nominations for Best Actress? Or just Moore? Are they both leading?

  • 4 2-17-2010 at 12:29 pm

    Fitz said...

    Maybe Bening gets the Oscar she’s wanted for so long. No Swank to best her here.

  • 5 2-17-2010 at 12:33 pm

    Glenn said...

    If Bening is supporting in Mother and Child, I assume she’s lead here and Moore supporting?

  • 6 2-17-2010 at 12:33 pm

    Glenn said...

    Great review, Guy. I can’t wait to see this.

  • 7 2-17-2010 at 1:06 pm

    head_wizard said...

    Enjoyed the revirew, this movie sounds better and better the more I hear about it.

  • 8 2-17-2010 at 1:23 pm

    Roy said...

    What’s the likelihood of award prospects, for any category?

  • 9 2-17-2010 at 1:56 pm

    Ali E. said...

    In terms of Oscar consideration, I suppose Bening is the lead in Mother and Child. Am I right? So I wonder which way they’ll push her with this…

    Anyway, I’m so happy that this film turned out to be so good and well-received. Can’t wait to see it!

  • 10 2-17-2010 at 2:28 pm

    red_wine said...

    If this movie is as much fun as your review, I’m on for it!

  • 11 2-17-2010 at 2:31 pm

    JR said...

    For all the squawk about Streep being overdue for her third Oscar, there should be thunderbolts from the sky that Moore has yet to have just one.

    Though I respect Bening, she’s always seemed to theatrical to me on screen. I’d much rather see her on stage than film.

    Can’t wait for this movie… Love Cholodenko’s work…

  • 12 2-17-2010 at 2:53 pm

    j said...

    Julianne effing Moore needs her Oscar. Robbed this year of her nom. If Streep (please) wins next month, she’s the actress I’m dying to see on the podium the most.

  • 13 2-17-2010 at 5:29 pm

    JJ said...

    It would be amazing for one to be nommed in Lead, & one in Supporting so that both can finally win!

  • 14 2-17-2010 at 6:05 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Ruffalo is so lovely to look at. Too bad he’s straight and married but mostly straight.

  • 15 2-17-2010 at 6:10 pm

    Patryk said...

    “High Art” remains one of my personal favorites of the 90’s, with career best work from both Ally Sheedy and Patricia Clarkson. This sounds wonderful.

    It would be great to see Ruffalo get the attention he deserves.

  • 16 2-17-2010 at 8:59 pm

    Glenn said...

    That Glenn up the top isn’t me. It’s a different Glenn. Dude, there’s already one them here! :(

  • 17 2-17-2010 at 9:14 pm

    Michael said...

    I cannot wait for this film! It is one of my most anticipated films to come out of the early festival season.

  • 18 2-18-2010 at 3:13 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    A bit early in the year for Oscar talk, guys! But since there’s so much curiosity, I’ll say this much:

    As I say in the review, this is plainly a two-lead (arguably, even three-lead) film. It appears for a time that Moore’s character is propelling the narrative more actively, but Bening’s key moments come later. This should be a “Thelma and Louise” deal with a pair of Best Actress contenders.

    I have no idea what Focus will do, but putting Moore into supporting would be pretty fraudulent.

    As for the rest, if the film catches fire, there are clear prospects for Ruffalo and the screenplay.

    Okay, that’s all I’m saying on the subject for a good few months.

  • 19 4-09-2010 at 9:31 am

    Roger said...

    Wonderfull review! Really nice reading! Quite eager to see the film now. But what are ur thoughts on the kids performances? Are the worth it compare to the “three” leads? Is Mia Wasikowska worth the hype building around her this days? What about Hutcherson? Do they keep up with the movie? Cheers!

  • 20 4-09-2010 at 9:53 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    It was a bit of a rushed review under festival conditions, which was why I don’t really give the kids the credit they deserve. They’re both excellent, and completely of a piece with the ensemble.

    That said, Wasikowska has proved she’s hype-worthy ever since “In Treatment.”

  • 21 7-28-2010 at 8:19 am

    Duncan Houst said...

    Personally, I believe that Mia Wasikowska did an amazing performance as Joni, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she got nominated in the Supporting Actress category this year.