The Kids are All Right
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko
The Grade: A-
There’s been an increasingly distressing problem with Indie-movies over the last several months, but we’ve finally been delivered the antidote in the form of Lisa Cholodenko’s wonderful comedy The Kids are All Right. The film stars Annette Benning and Julianne Moore as a Southern California lesbian couple (Nic and Jules, respectively) with two teenage children from an anonymous sperm donor, and their world gets chaotic when their daughter (Alice in Wonderland’s Mia Wasikowska) turns eighteen, making her legally allowed to hunt down her biological father. When Paul, the father played by Mark Ruffalo, shows up as an über-cool, motorcycle-driving, restaurant proprietor, only Nic is hesitant to accept him into the carefully balanced family fold, and, as you might expect, hilarity ensues. But something else ensues as well, and it’s that movie rarity we call truth.
The epidemic with Indie-movies of recent vintage has been, quite simply, a lack of reality. This problem, I believe, goes back to the tremendous box office success of 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, which was an enjoyable and funny film, but it created an appetite in audiences to see ironic comedies about families in which every member has an impossibly unique eccentricity (a genre birthed from Wes Anderson movies and the cult TV series Arrested Development). The result has been recent movies like Greenberg, City Island, and Cyrus, which were all funny, and all way too ridiculous for their own good. In each of these movies, the main characters have been so utterly whacked out with increasingly bizarre personality disorders, that it’s been difficult to find a glimmer of reality amidst the comedic devices. An example: when Ben Stiller’s titular Greenberg makes out his grocery list, it contains exactly two items: whiskey and ice cream sandwiches. Did I laugh? Of course I did (it’s funny!), but unless you have a similar grocery list, on what level are we supposed to relate to characters like these?
What The Kids are All Right really has going for it is that it doesn’t feel the need to mortgage the characters’ psyches in exchange for a cheap laugh. Every funny moment in the movie (and trust me, they are bountiful) feels born from genuine human interaction, and so does every moment of heartbreak (yup, there are a few of those too). When we see the first meeting between Paul and his two teenage children, it’s remarkably awkward because none of the three parties know how to temper real conversation with the far more important task of feeling each other out. But in some of the genuine advice Paul later doles out to his kids, we see that maybe fatherhood comes more naturally than he (or we) realized.
But while the title may tell us point blank how the kids are, the great unknown that the movie deals with is in whether the parents are all right. The upheaval that Paul’s presence creates in the meticulously orchestrated family structure that Nic and Jules have created threatens not just the kids’ behavior (watch out, the daughter’s on a motorcycle!), but also the parents. When Paul hires Jules to kick off her new landscaping business with a massive project on his backyard, Nic is queasy about the idea; does she not want Paul and Jules spending time together, or does she have a deeper desire to see Jules fail at her business so she can still feel needed in her role as emotional caregiver of the family?
Cholodenko has made a few movies prior to this one (2002’s Laurel Canyon being the most notable), and she and co-writer Stuart Blumberg drew from her real-life relationship with Wendy Melvoin, former lead guitarist of Prince’s 1980s backing band, The Revolution. But you’d be foolish if you think this movie will somehow not be about real relationships simply because the protagonists are a same-sex couple. Julianne Moore delivers a monologue towards the end of the film that was like a double shot of espresso truth; it’ll really wake you up, and we’ll probably be seeing snippets of it again next awards season.
Really, the only justification I have for a slight docking of the movie’s otherwise perfect grade is the uncertainty in the way one of the characters is left at the film’s conclusion, but it’s not fair to give away too much. 2010 is now more than half over, and this is—along with Toy Story 3—the year’s most original and perfect comedy/drama so far. And how interesting and ironic is it that the originality of The Kids are All Right is rooted in its adherence to reality instead of the departure from it?