Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” takes its title from one of many great songs by The Who. However, I kept wondering about the movie’s title in regards to the way it is spelled. The Who’s song is entitled “The Kids Are Alright” while the movie splits “Alright” into “All Right.” What exactly does that mean? Are the kids infinitely more intelligent than the parents in this movie? Is it that they make better decisions in their lives than the adults do? We all know that kids have a stronger detector system when it comes to the hypocrisy of parents and adults in general, so perhaps the movie’s title means to spell that out literally…
Or maybe it’s because The Who made a rockumentary a number of years back called “The Kids Are Alright,” and perhaps Focus Features didn’t want to confuse the two. Anyway, that’s just a thought.
I was lucky enough to catch a screening of this movie on the day that Proposition 8 was overturned by the California Supreme Court (YES!!!). This was the same proposition that barred gay couples from getting married which found funding from people didn’t even live in California. However, to call this a lesbian or gay couple movie would make audiences completely miss the point. That’s like calling “Brokeback Mountain a “gay cowboy” movie for crying out loud. What the couple of Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) go through is unlikely all that different than what many “straight couples” go through, and it really gets to the truth of what hard work marriage is.
Nic and Jules are a very loving couple indeed, and there is no doubt as to how deep their affection for one another is. On top of that, they have two wonderful children; a 15 year old boy named Laser (Josh Hutcherson), and an 18-year old girl named Joni (Mia Wasikowska) who is about to head off to college. The major difference between Nic and Jules is that while Nic has had a successful career as a physician, Jules has failed at just about every business she has tried to start up on her own. It gets to where Jules starts to wonder if Nic is really just belittling everything she does, and a resentment between the two begins to grow.
But what really throws a wrench into the family’s dynamic is when Joni, after being pushed by Laser to do so, contacts their biological father. Both were conceived by artificial insemination, and the sperm donor turns out to be a very nice guy named Paul (Mark Ruffalo) who has a phobia of commitment and leads a decidedly bohemian life. Upon meeting these two kids, he warms up to them immediately and finds himself changing in ways he didn’t expect. But then he meets the parents, and things get really crazy from there.
Now what I really liked about “The Kids Are All Right” was that after a summer of superheroes and high concept movies, here’s one dealing with real people and situations we all recognize from our own lives and the lives of others. The characters conceived here are all well meaning people who never come across as contrived or clichéd in the usual sense. Lisa Cholodenko, along with co-writer Stuart Blumberg, succeed in creating some wonderful characters, and they fill them with dialogue that is hilarious, insightful, and refreshingly down to earth. These are also people with visible flaws which make them all the more human.
Another thing I really liked was that I found myself never taking sides or hating any of the characters. Like I said, each one is well meaning and comes into this situation with the best of intentions. Of course, we all know where the best of intentions can lead us… When these people stray from one another, we may disagree with what they do, but Cholodenko uses this to make us understand why some end up doing the things they do. Everyone is complicated in their own way, but labeling people as bad for doing certain things really only serves to blind us from understanding them as individuals.
All the actors are clearly in love with playing the intricacies of their parts, and each one creates a character we quickly become emotionally invested in. Annette Bening, who I feel I haven’t seen in anything for awhile, is perfect as Nic, the bread winner of the family. At times very high strung and a bit overprotective of her family, she imbues Nic with a strong sense of commitment while losing sight of what brought her into this relationship in the first place.
Julianne Moore shines as she always does as Jules, a spouse that feels increasingly neglected in her role as housewife, and her fear that Nic is not taking her career endeavors feels very much justified. In many ways, Jules gets looked down more than anyone else in the script, but Julianne never makes Jules a pitiful creature and gives her a strong center that she falls away from but quickly finds her way back to. Her speech on marriage is one of the movie’s best moments, and Julianne makes it come from an honest place.
Mark Ruffalo continues his reign of great naturalistic performances and still makes film acting look effortless. His character of Paul could have been the bad guy of the piece or some sitcom-like character, but you never doubt his sincerity in how he grows to love these kids which he hand in bringing into the world. Even when he missteps (and he really does), I found it impossible to dislike the guy. Of all the characters in “The Kids Are All Right,” he is the one who grows the most, but his revelations come in a way that is not exactly appropriate.
Both Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson are great as the kids, and Cholodenko keeps them from becoming conventional in the teenager mainstream movie kind of way. Mia gets to be much livelier here than she was in Tim Burton’s bland remake of “Alice In Wonderland,” and she radiates intelligence that makes her character wise beyond her years. She does actually come across as the most mature character in the film. Josh also makes Laser an interesting kid caught up in friendships that aren’t really sound and finding a father figure in the last place he expected to. Seeing him discovering his parents’ videotape of gay male pornography leads to one of the funniest moments Cholodenko directs.
If there is any complaint I have with “The Kids Are All Right,” it’s with the movie’s ending. The plight of Mark Ruffalo’s character is frustratingly left unresolved, and we never do learn if he will keep in touch with Joni and Laser. Nic and Jules do get a satisfying conclusion, but seeing Paul getting cut loose was an unfortunate disappointment. I was eagerly waiting to see where he would end up after all that had ensued.
Still, “The Kids Are All Right” was one of the nicest surprises of the 2010 summer movie season, and it deservedly got a large audience for an independent film. It has what I would like to see more of in movies; regular, down to earth people with problems and flaws much like anyone else’s. I also think it involves a relationship that any couple (and I strongly stress the word ANY) can relate to in different ways.
By the way, for those of you who think that gays getting married is still a threat to the “sanctity of marriage,” I got two words for you: Charlie Sheen. End of story.
***½ out of ****