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Dustin Putman

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The Kids Are All Right  (2010)
3 Stars
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko.
Cast: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson, Yaya DaCosta, Kunal Sharma, Eddie Hassell, Zosia Mamet, Joaquin Garrido, Rebecca Lawrence, Lisa Eisner, Eric Eisner.
2010 – 104 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong sexual content, nudity, language, and some teen drug and alcohol use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 7, 2010.
The lives of a family with same-sex parents is an area that has scarcely been touched upon in today's cinematic landscape, and "The Kids Are All Right" does right to tackle this negligent topic. The happy surprise, though, is that writer-director Lisa Cholodenko (1998's "High Art") and co-writer Stuart Blumberg (2004's "The Girl Next Door") see these characters as they see any average modern nuclear family. Sure, the parents may both be female, but their relationship—and the relationships they have with their children—are just like anybody else's, fraught with all of the same peaks and valleys that go along with people who care for each other but do not always see eye to eye. Nobody's perfect. Love is love. Parenting is difficult no matter the circumstances. And so it goes. "The Kids Are All Right" is uncommonly wise and true in this way, even if the story that has been provided doesn't necessarily add up to a whole lot by the end. Anyway, the joy comes from the journey.

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are longtime partners, deeply in love despite differing personalities. Whereas Nic is a controlled, type-A working woman, a doctor who has made a prosperous career and family for herself, Jules has spent her years struggling to figure out what it is she wants to do in between staying home and caring for children Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). She's never quite felt like she's good enough in Nic's eyes, and things don't seem to be much different when she decides to start a garden landscaping business. With Joni now eighteen and mere months away from going off to college, 15-year-old Laser convinces her to take charge and track down their sperm donor father, a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants, motorcycle-riding fresh foods restauranteur named Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Having never settled down and at the age when he's begun to long for a family, Paul is nervous but excited to finally meet his children. They hit it off fairly well, but it's not long before Nic and Jules become privy to Joni's and Laser's actions in seeking out their birth father. The ultimate introduction of Paul into their close-knit circle seems at first like a positive thing until sacred boundaries are broken and a light is cast on the interpersonal problems Nic and Jules are facing as a couple.

While Joni and Laser enjoy connecting with their father, their time spent with him is a delicate balancing act between getting to know each other and hanging out as friends. Paul lets Joni ride on the back of his bike—something Nic would be irate about if she found out. Laser and Paul play basketball and Paul tells him he doesn't like how Laser's disrespectful friend Clay (Eddie Hassell) treats him—a truth that Laser is defensive about because he knows deep down Paul is right. Does Paul make any monumental impact on either kid, however? "The Kids Are All Right" doesn't prove so, but maybe that is the point. Laser and Joni are interested at first in the idea of having a male figure in their lives, but discover that it really doesn't make a difference. Nic and Jules have raised them well, and they are, as the title states, all right without him.

As a slice-of-life alternately affectionate and biting, the film is nothing if not naturalistic and consistently watchable. The characters are a delight to see interact with each other and grow when they need to. The love relationship between Jules and Nic doesn't feel written, but thoroughly authentic, filled with the little details that make up a partnership where both parties know each other through and through. Joni and Laser come off as real teens, bright and clumsy and a little awkward, not movie teens filled with endless sarcastic quips and blemish-free beauty. As for Paul, his good side that means well is often overcome by his egotism, and this hurts him in the long run. One imagines him waking up at age sixty and realizing that he is still hopelessly alone in the world. All of these people—and a few peripheral ones, like Tanya (Yaya DaCosta), Paul's beautiful restaurant employee and sometimes booty call—come together to create a comfortable insular world within the microcosm of Southern California. They're all worth spending time with.

Performances are top-notch across the board, and how could they not be with such a great cast? Of them, Annette Bening (2006's "Running with Scissors") steals the show as Nic, a territorial mama bear with a penchant for wine and, when she feels threatened, bitter honesty. Struggling to do right for the kids and making mistakes along the way, she is forced to confront the fact that she's not perfect and the expectations she places on Joni and Laser are smothering. At some point, she is going to have to let go, or at least ease off—a notion made all the clearer as Joni prepares to leave home for college. Bening is both enormously funny and stirringly poignant as Nic, the latter no more so than in the scenes where she must reevaluate her love for Jules after a particularly hurtful betrayal. As Jules, Julianne Moore (2010's "Chloe") is an ideal onscreen partner for Bening, affecting in her own right as she rebels from complacency and is taken with guilt for actions that put her irreplaceable relationship with Nic on shaky ground.

Mark Ruffalo (2010's "Shutter Island") has always been especially good at playing scruffily handsome free spirits, and, as such, Paul is perfect for him. In the crucial parts of teen siblings Joni and Laser, Mia Wasikowska is radiant and appropriately vulnerable, getting a lot more chance to act than she did in 2010's CG-suffocating "Alice in Wonderland," while Josh Hutcherson (2009's "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant") simply continues his climb toward crossing over from one of the strongest child actors of his generation into an adult performer who hasn't lost an ounce of his instinctual talent and charisma. Finally, Yaya DaCosta (2006's "Take the Lead") is a stunning, earthy find as Tanya, someone worth sitting up and taking notice of.

Despite being an indie film with mainstream aspirations—director Lisa Cholodenko has come out and admitted as much in interviews—"The Kids Are All Right" thankfully sacrifices none of its genuineness and sometimes raw emotions. If the film does break out and become a sleeper hit, will it be the first motion picture to do so with two lead characters who happen to be lesbians? That in and of itself would be an achievement for the filmmakers and, perhaps, a sign to Hollywood studios that not all movies have to be headlined with straight characters. Besides, Nic's and Jules' sexuality does not define them as people or as involved and caring parents. They've done just as well as anyone could in all facets of their life, and are no different than anybody else in their spectrum of human emotions. Without getting preachy for a millisecond, that, above all, is the valuable lesson "The Kids Are All Right" most succinctly sends out into the stratosphere. Is anyone listening?
© 2010 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman