Lisa Cholodenko The Kids Are All Right is a very good film — though not, I think, quite a great one. And before anyone else asks me: No, the Who song “The Kids Are Alright” is not in this movie (but then again, neither is it in the 1979 Who documentary The Kids Are Alright, and that’s far more perplexing). On the other hand, you do get a bit of Leon Russell and a few servings of David Bowie (blessedly, Ms. Cholodenko appears to be aware that Bowie recorded something other than “Queen Bitch”). You also get a warm, funny, entertaining, slyly subversive little movie built around five very solid performances.
Cholodenko has said she didn’t set out to make a political statement with the film — but really, the minute you make a movie with a lesbian or gay couple at the heart of the story and then depict them and their children as being no different than any other family, you’ve made a political statement. And Cholodenko is not so naive that I imagine she is unaware of this. However, she’s done it all so cleverly — by adhering to what is little more than a sitcom structure — that the film becomes truly subversive through making the whole scenario seem so familiar. That, however, comes with a price, because Cholodenko’s sitcom approach also makes the film rarely surprising.
A small price to pay for a subversive act? Perhaps, but it’s also why the film never quite makes it to the level of great for me.
In case you’re unaware, The Kids Are All Right centers on longtime lesbian couple Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) and their teenage children Joni (Mia Wasikowska, Alice in Wonderland) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant). They’re a reasonably upscale middle-class family, which is to say they live better than most people you probably know. The kids are the result of artificial insemination -— one child each pregnancy, and both children from the same sperm donor. Into this stable home-life (albeit no more stable than that of any straight family) comes a bit of friction when the kids opt to track down, and then meet, their biological father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo).
First comes the unsettling idea to “the moms” (as their kids refer to them) that the two women are somehow not “enough” for their children. Then comes the even more disconcerting news that the kids — especially Joni, who wasn’t keen on meeting Paul originally — like him and plan on seeing more of him. Worse yet, it turns out that Jules also likes Paul, and that leads to genuine conflict, which I won’t go into for those who haven’t already read about it.
What makes this whole setup work so well lies in large measure with the performances. There’s not a clunker in here, nor is there an indifferent portrayal. All five actors seem to truly inhabit their characters — just don’t let their wholly convincing performances overshadow the film’s writing and direction, since each of the performances is grounded in that, as well as in the honesty of the characters’ shifting jealousies.
One of the film’s great strengths is that it truly has a handle on how jealousy works, and on the innate possessiveness of human beings. Notice, for an isolated example, how Jules is far from pleased when Nic — who initially dislikes Paul — ultimately finds common ground on which to bond with him. The Kids Are All Right is one of those rare movies where not only is it possible to understand the motives and feelings of the characters, but it’s also impossible not to see some aspect of yourself in each of the characters at different times in the proceedings as well. (Just where in the proceedings will likely vary from person to person, but that’s as it should be.)
The film is billed as a comedy, and that’s not unreasonable, though this is certainly not a comedy of the “laff riot” variety. Instead, it’s a comedy with a streak of sadness in it, and one that asks you to laugh — or at least smile — at your own faults and foibles. That might make it, for some, a slightly uncomfortable sort of comedy. Moreover, there are several incompletely resolved aspects of the film that mightn’t be to everyone’s liking, though they’re also part of what keeps The Kids Are All Right from ultimately falling too far in line with its sitcom structure.
Bottom line is: See it. I don’t think you’ll be the least bit sorry you did. Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some teen drug and alcohol use.