If there were a cinematic equivalent of the Great American Novel, The Kids Are All Right would be a contender. Not that it’s weighty or self-important (on the contrary, its self-aware humor is part of its charm), but it takes the temperature of family life in a particular place and time in American history as precisely as a John Updike novel.
I’ve been watching everything I could find from director/co-writer Lisa Cholodenko (she co-wrote this one with Stuart Blumberg) ever since I saw High Art back in 1998. There wasn’t a lot to find. Aside from a few episodes of high-quality TV shows (Six Feet Under, The L Word), she directed just two movies: Laurel Canyon and now The Kids Are All Right. As Spencer Tracy says of Katherine Hepburn in Pat and Mike, it ain’t much meat, but what’s there is choice. All three of Cholodenko’s films explore the blurriness of the lines we try to draw around our sexuality as their characters are drawn, almost despite themselves, into “forbidden” sexual relationships. As Jules (Julianne Moore) tries to explain to her son, Laser (Josh Hutcherson), in The Kids Are All Right: “Human sexuality is complicated, and sometimes desire can be counterintuitive.”
Jules is on the spot because Laser just discovered that his two moms, Jules and Nic (Annette Bening), sometimes get off by watching gay male porn. The film plays that realistically odd preference for laughs, but there’s none of the shame-inducing sniggering we’ve gotten used to from movies like American Pie. Like good parents, Cholodenko and Blumberg understand and embrace everything about their characters, loving them not despite of, but because of their absurdly flawed humanity.
The taboo relationship this time around involves the sperm donor for Laser and his sister, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), the catalyst who brings some long-simmering family conflicts to a boil after the kids decide it’s time to meet their biological father. The tone of this warmhearted comic drama never darkens too much, but there’s a strong sense of what’s at risk: This is a family you don’t want to see broken up. Sure, it has its internal scuffles, but they’re just the inevitable jockeying that goes on inside intimate relationships as people—particularly teenagers and long-married spouses— work to maintain their autonomy and sense of self. Being part of this family, you sense, would be like getting hugged by your big-breasted grandma. You might feel a little suffocated sometimes, but you wouldn’t really want to break free.
The acting is universally excellent, as it always is in Cholodenko’s well-cast movies. Mark Ruffalo is likeable but sometimes laughable as Paul, the charming but a little too self-satisfied sperm donor dad, an aging New Ager who’s “working the alternative thing pretty hard,” as Jules puts it. Moore makes Jules touchingly awkward as she grapples with her unwanted attraction to Paul. Hutcherson’s best moment comes in an early scene as Laser watches an obnoxious friend wrestle with his testosterone-charged father, his excited face and hesitant body language telling you all you need to know about his father-hunger. But the standouts in this outstanding cast are Bening and Wasikowska, who keeping showing us the layers of repressed emotion their characters are working hard to hide. The emotions so clearly roiling under their tightly controlled surfaces made those two feel like mother and daughter even more than the pale coloring and delicate cheekbones they share, just as the matching vulnerability and yearning in Wasikowska and Ruffalo’s big brown eyes made them look like father and daughter in their final goodbye. Of course, it was nuts to search the faces of unrelated actors for signs of each other, but I couldn’t help myself: That’s just how right this movie got its portrait of a family.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.