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Happy together? (l-r) Bening and Moore in The Kids Are All Right.

The Family Way

By Laura Leon

The Kids Are All Right

Directed by Lisa Cholodenko


It’s kind of ironic that, finally, a movie about how long-term relationships change and transform over time—in short, what happens to just about everybody—has come out and it’s very wonderful and its central couple are lesbians. Nothing against homosexuality, I’m just saying, as I have often enough, these are the kind of real-life stories that everybody deals with, and why aren’t we seeing more of them, instead of Clash of the Cyborg Mutants in 3D, in cinemas?

In this case, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are happily wedded parents to Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), whom they got via sperm donation. Nic, a doc, and Jules, a former architect turned wannabe landscape designer, have read all the “right” books and know all the correct phraseology in dealing with kids, but here’s the thing: None of this matters in the real-life world of raising young people who feel a deeper affinity to their peers than to those who raised them. Add to this mix the fact that Nic and Jules (and for that matter writer-director Lisa Cholodenko) haven’t the faintest clue how to deal with a teenage boy . . .

Things are already sticky for the family, what with the kids geeking out over “the Momses’” penchant for gay porn as foreplay, but when Laser longs to learn about his birth father, it’s game on. Joni takes the initiative, and finds sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo), one of those ultra-cool locovore guys who’s into living wild and free—which basically translates into the fact that he’s never been able to commit to anything long-term. Nic is appalled at the insertion of this presence into their family, perhaps rightly complaining to Jules that he’s a sperm donor, not a father; but nevertheless, Laser, and, for different reasons, Jules, are intrigued. What transpires is hard to describe without spoilers, but let’s just say that Paul’s arrival reveals fissures in the family structure even as it provides tantalizing questions to the audience about what it means to be a family, and to what extent a strong same-sex presence is integral to the well being of a growing child.

The movie raises important issues even as it engages us with warmth and humor. There’s a great scene in which Nic and Jules confront Laser about his “meet up” with Paul; the revelation that Laser, with Joni’s help, has met with their sperm donor, and that it wasn’t, as they feared, a pedo or gay hook-up, is particularly funny in numerous ways. While basking in its PC creds, the movie excels at depicting and promoting a concept of family, even if it’s not the kind that Nic and Jules had originally anticipated. Nic is disturbed that Paul has chosen a career “in the food-service industry” when, from his donor bio, it appeared that he was studying international relations and had lofty ideals about peace, love and understanding. That said, Cholodenko doesn’t seem to get that some of the funniest, or at least most scathing, moments of the movie come from the ultra-new-agey, touchy-feely way in which the main couple communicate, using verbiage that seems straight out of the self-help books of the past two decades.

The acting is stellar, especially Bening, whose performance could withstand beautifully a silent movie version of the same. Ruffalo is rakish and charming and everything a teen could hope for in a cool dad, just as he’s everything a wary woman would recognize as a lousy life partner. Yet the movie focuses not so much on individual flaws but on the makeup of family, however untraditional. Paul’s insertion into what many traditionalists would consider an already elastic family situation leads to interesting reactions. He encourages Joni to stand up to Nic, and he influences Laser in ways that Nic and Jules were unable to. In other ways, he completely rocks the relative stability of the Nic/Jules relationship, in such a way as one wonders whether, for all their philosophizing and rationalizing, they can survive. Cholodenko is unable to balance the humorous and dramatic threads of the story, leading to a very moralistic ending, but for the most part, The Kids Are All Right is a tremendous gift to filmgoers, especially in a season of big-budget special-effects losers.

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