"The Kids are All Right" is one of the most honest and intelligent films about family, relationships, and the institution of marriage you're likely to see or have ever seen. That the central characters are a lesbian couple doesn't matter in the slightest. Director/co-writer Lisa Cholodenko doesn't sermonize about homophobia or civil unions or moral values, but rather presents a sincere, complex, and universal portrayal an American family - imperfect and at times highly turbulent, but still loving and committed. There's no trace of Hollywood idealism; rather, there's the sense that we're seeing real people living real lives with real ups and downs. Movies like this have to be treasured. They show respect for the audience. They involve you rather than make you feel like an outsider.
At the center of the plot are Nic (Annette Benning) and Jules (Julianne Moore), who have been married for a number of years and have raised two children, one born to each and conceived via an anonymous sperm donor. Despite their relatively normal upbringing, the half siblings - fifteen-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and eighteen-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska), are curious about their biological father and decide to contact him through the sperm bank. Here enters Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the casual, relaxed, super cool owner of a restaurant serving organic food he has grown and harvested himself. He seems to like the kids. The kids seem to like him. The moms think he's a little too pleased with himself, what with the way he describes his own success as the result of doing, not learning.
Nic, a doctor who has always been the dominant provider, slowly begins to feel as if her world is being stolen away, the kids spending more time with Paul than she's comfortable with. She drinks wine excessively. She has to be in control of every situation. Jules, less focused but more nurturing than Nic, begins to feel underappreciated, especially now that she has started a landscaping business. As it so happens, her first client is Paul, a turn of events that ties into a reality rarely discussed in the movies but is wisely observed here: Human sexuality is complicated, few falling into definite black and white categories. To say anything more would be too revealing, although I will say that, whatever happens, Paul will be cool with it. Others will be terribly confused. Others still will be hurt very deeply.
The characters, written and played with sharp humor and heart, all have qualities that are not only realistic but relatable as well. Nic and Jules love their children and they each other, but as they eventually come to realize, marriage is hard and subject to unexpected turns. Who's to say who was right and who was wrong in any given situation? It's not as clear cut as it might seem. Joni, now a legal adult and on the verge of moving away to college, is incredibly smart, although she feels pressured into being the perfect child of a lesbian couple, and she has not yet acted upon her own emerging sexuality. Laser, less bookish but greatly athletic, has trouble finding that fine line between an adrenaline rush and acts of sheer stupidity. This is especially true when in the presence of his friend, who everyone else correctly writes off as a loser and a bad influence.
As for Paul, there always seems to be someone like him in our lives. He's easy-going and open, although he doesn't always think before he acts. Why, for example, did he decide to donate sperm in the first place? Laser really would like to know. He puts a lot of selfless words in his answer, although one gets the sense that he doesn't really know why he did it. Maybe it just seemed like a good idea at the time. Maybe he's the kind of person that will try almost anything once if it seems fun enough. He's done many things in his life, but at this stage, he's cool with running an organic restaurant. Will he be cool with it a year from now? Five years? Ten? He says at one point that he would like a family someday, although he doesn't strike me as someone who thinks that far in advance. He lives for the moment. Unfortunately, that may do more harm than good when it comes to Joni and Laser - he's their biological father, but he's not their dad.
The film is both funny and dramatic, and yet Cholodenko correctly avoids going too far in either direction. It doesn't condescend. It doesn't emotionally manipulate. It allows the characters and situations to evolve smoothly and naturally, so that by the end, I felt as if I had experienced something truly profound. It helps that that the performances are some of the best of any I've seen so far this year. Benning and Moore are completely believable in their roles, developed not as tiresome gay stereotypes but as actual people in a long-term relationship; they're not without their flaws, but underneath it all, they're well-meaning and decent. Wasikowska and Hutcherson play teenagers I could truly care about, both having personalities that felt genuine. Ruffalo is in top form, convincingly playing a character that, like a lot of us, has yet to figure things out. "The Kids are All Right" is a real winner - one of the year's best films.
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT Written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg Directed by Lisa Cholodenko Starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson and Mark Ruffalo Joni: Each of my mom’s used your sperm. Paul: As in two? As in both of them? Joni: Uh-huh, as in gay. I don’t know if anyone has told you this already but family can be fairly complicated. … more
A few weeks ago, Entertainment Weekly ran a story about how box office numbers are down and it's quite possibly because the quality of movies is down. This, of course, was before Toy Story 3 came out and was both fantastic and hugely successful. One of the points in the EW article was that, at this point last year, five of the ten eventual Best Picture nominees had already been released, including the eventual winner. This year, no movie had yet come out which had any prayer of being nominated. … more
A lesbian couple raising two kids conceived by artificial insemination is pretty much a definition of "unconditional family"... But how things will turn when the children will want to meet their "distant father" the sperm donor? This movie might give the answers you're looking for. It's a very nice build story... the characters are well developed and there's no ridiculous emotional process that they go through. It's an liberating and … more
"The Kids Are All Right" Lesbians Raising Children Amos Lassen Nic and Jules are a middle-aged lesbian couple raising two teenagers, Joni and Laser in suburban Los Angeles. All went fine until Joni listens to Laser and decides to find out about her biological father. She investigates, calls the sperm bank who puts her in touch with Paul who is willing to meet the kids that he never knew were his. Paul comes to visit and all "hell … more
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT has been heaped with praise from critics, including significant talk of Oscar nominations. The entire time I was watching the film, I couldn't help but wonder if at least some of that stemmed purely from a need to praise a film for showing a "normal" lesbian family...regardless of the quality of the film. I know viewers (or even just people who read a description of the film) who have problems with gay issues will no doubt bristle at this film and its efforts to "push an agenda." … more
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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If the relationships that anchor Lisa Cholodenko's warmly funny films appear unconventional, their problems--their pleasures--remain universal. InThe Kids Are All Right(no relation to the Who documentary), she takes on a suburban Los Angeles family with two teens, Joni (Alice in Wonderland's Mia Wasikowska) and the unfortunately named Laser (Josh Hutcherson,The Bridge to Terabithia), and two mothers, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (an atypically relaxed Julianne Moore), who conceived via artificial insemination. Now that she's heading off to college, Laser urges 18-year-old Joni to seek out their birth father, who lives in the area (her name comes from folksinger Mitchell). Though she hits it off with Paul (Mark Ruffalo, effortlessly charming), a motorcycle-riding restaurant owner, Laser has his doubts (troublingly, the 15-year-old's best friend uses "faggot" as an all-purpose epithet). After they introduce Paul to their parents, allegiances start to shift. While Nic, a doctor, serves as breadwinner (and disciplinarian), Jules, a homemaker-turned-landscape artist, provides the nurturing. Paul, on the other hand, lives free from attachments, inciting both curiosity and suspicion. Furthermore, Jules finds him strangely irresistible, which only expands the fissures in her loving, yet unstable union. As withLaurel Canyon, Cholodenko doesn't just create fully rounded characters, but entire communities. In the end,Kidsisn't about children vs. ...