Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Kids Are All Right (****)

Directed by Lisa Cholodenko


In a time when the multiplexes are filling with the complex, cyber-technology that leads to films like Inception, it's almost refreshing to approach a movie like The Kids Are All Right. Very seldom can a film so succinctly and accurately be about people. Sure, there are many people who will watch the trailer and swear the film's sole purpose is to push a strong liberal agenda, betraying the fabric of normal (conservative) family values. But what is perhaps the greatest quality about Lisa Cholodenko's latest film is that it refuses to take a convenient political stance or kowtow toward any demographic to gain sympathy. It is, simply stated, about people.

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a long-time married lesbian couple with two children: Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). They each conceived one of the children using the same sperm doner. Eighteen years later, Joni is about to go to college with a National Merit Scholarship and Laser is excelling in various team sports in high school. Nic is a successfully practicing doctor, while Jules career path (even at her age) still seems unfocused, though she seems to have a sudden interest in landscaping. With the exception of a few valleys here and there, they've been able to create a fully-functioning family, despite their unorthodox make-up.

One summer, Joni and Laser decide that they're curious enough to try and get in touch with their biological father. Who they meet is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a restaurant owner and farmer of organic foods. Paul is initially timid with the concept of meeting his "children", but when he finally is able to have a sit down and speak with them, the idea of becoming acquainted with his own offspring becomes suddenly appealing. He actively wants to spend more time with them, and Joni and Laser feel the same way. This budding relationship does not totally sit well with Nic and Jules. After all, sperm donors are supposed to be absent, invisible beings, not practicing parents.

It doesn't help that Paul's laid back, easy-come-easy-go personality instantly clashes with Nic's stern perfectionism. Things become further complicated when Paul hires Jules to do landscaping work on his backyard, and before long, they begin having an affair. What follows is a series of actions and reactions that pick at the fabric of family and the complexities of human relationships and sexuality. Nic is threatened by Paul's forceful entrance into her family, and rightfully so. His nonchalance seems to highlight the ugliest parts of her formal need to keep things (and people) in control.

I think it's too easy to dismiss The Kids Are All Right as pushing a lesbian agenda (and many, including The New York Post's Andrea Peyser have made such a close-minded claim). When you read that the co-writer/director Lisa Cholodenko is a lesbian herself, it becomes like shooting fish in a barrel. "That crazy lesbian is trying to work around American morality!" Quite frankly, the conflicts that arise within the film literally could not happen to a straight couple and I think it's only logical to assume that Cholodenko would fall back on her experiences as a gay woman when she helped pen the screenplay. After all, we rarely criticize other Hollywood filmmakers as they produce hundreds of film each year supporting a straight agenda.

Not only is that mindset dismissive, but it unfortunately limits your ability to appreciate Cholodenko's fabulous film. She does not go through an effort to lionize the accomplishments of Nic and Jules. If anything, she excels in exposing their shortcomings. It's incredibly hard to craft this kind of screenplay; one in which five very different characters are given complete introspection without disrupting the forward movement of the plot. You can make a case that either Nic or Jules or Joni or Paul or Laser are the main protagonist of the film at various moments, but how they work together makes The Kids Are All Right a real treat.

Bening and Moore are both exceptional, as is to be expected. Bening is stunning in her ability to express subtext so effortlessly (in a lot of ways, she's able to come off seeming like a 'conservative lesbian'), and Moore fills the flighty Jules with a lot more heart than I assume appeared on the page. The film simply would not function if they were not able to mold the unconventional marriage so vividly. As for Ruffalo, this is probably his best performance since 2000's You Can Count On Me. His version of Paul (cool, scruffy hipster; but five years away from becoming creepy, old hipster) is both endearing and disarming. Ruffalo continues his tradition of being able to make ne'er-do-wells charming. Though it should be said that the work of Wasikowska (Alice In Wonderland) is just as good as all three of them, perfectly reflecting the overachieving, emotionally-confused first child. We should be hearing a lot from this talented, young actress in the future.

Films about family and marriage are a dime a dozen. It's become so easy--and lazy--to recycle the same plot points over and over again (hello, Woody Allen!) to express a simple point: marriage is hard and it's not supposed to come easy. This sentiment is expressed beautifully and simply by Jules at the end of this film, and I don't think I've heard it stated any more accurately than the way it's stated then. The Kids Are All Right is winning glowing reviews from everyone, and it deserves them. It's funny and engaging, but most of all it is honest. Mostly honest about this simple truth: you don't need a penis to know how hard raising a family can be.

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