The Kids Are All Right
Well, it’s been nine years since Kissing Jessica Stein. So how are more-or-less mainstream indie lesbian-relationship comedies doing now, anyway?
Unlikely you should ask, but no matter! Here is one possible answer: For the gay-marriage movie du jour, we could do a lot worse than The Kids Are All Right.
This observation must be tempered with a few qualifications. First: Yes, it is very much the sort of film with which critics will flex their progressive bona fides, and therefore may be subject to some curve grading and irksome hype. (Presumably it also will be subject to reactionary convulsions from noisy idiots, but they won’t have a case and are, of course, idiots, so screw them.) Second: What of the title? Ever since the Who first misspelled it in 1965, and headline writers co-opted it for their pontificating surveys of cultural sea change thereafter, that phrase has bred a certain sort of self-fossilizing sanctimony. By now it’s gotten to the point that one half hopes for John Waters or Harmony Korine or somebody to respond with a portrait of a whole maladjusted generation in which The Kids Are All Wrong. Very, very wrong.
But this movie is not that. We’re not there yet. We’re here, with Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon) directing a slight but bittersweet tale about a neurotic lesbian couple whose formerly anonymous sperm donor becomes their potential home wrecker.
Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) live well in suburban Los Angeles with their two teenaged children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Nic’s a doctor, the breadwinner. Jules, the de facto stay-at-home, isn’t sure about her vocation. She’s a dabbler, and lately has her eye on a landscaping business. Together they seem complacent, but as individuals they each show signs of grasping for security. The same goes for the kids. With her departure for college impending, and without moms’ permission, Joni decides to help her brother track down their father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who turns out to run a happening farm-to-table restaurant, live at his own pace and need to have his yard landscaped.
That’s the setup, and it’s enough. It is a nice and perhaps essential touch that this smugly well-off two-mommy homestead—with one child named after Joni Mitchell and another, for crying out loud, named Laser—has become a bastion of bourgeois complacency, fully susceptible to all manner of marital and midlife crises. And it is a relief to see how resolutely Cholodenko resists the Sidney Poitier-ification of her topical protagonists. Maybe it’s simply a matter of operating within a culture that has wised up to that trick, and knowing therefore to disguise it in shabby, charming, well-appointed neurosis. Maybe the way forward now is through the seduction of self-deprecation.
Well, it works. The idea is that these characters should seem more like familiar people than like identity-politics placeholders. The risk is that they also seem more like indie-film eccentrics than like people. But Cholodenko brings out the best in her performers, dwelling generously on their expressive faces and prioritizing their great instincts over strict obedience to the sometimes trite, sometimes great dialogue she wrote with Stuart Blumberg. Moore’s timing is as tight as her spirit is loose. Ruffalo hearkens back to the promise he showed in You Can Count on Me, revealing again his outstanding knack for the clear characterization of a blurry person. And Bening, between this and the recent Mother and Child, is obviously on a roll.
“If I hear one more person say they love heirloom tomatoes, I’m gonna fucking kill myself,” Nic eventually has cause to blurt. The truth of how hard it is to maintain the organic and sustainable and righteously balanced lifestyle, however alternative, is that comedy and tragedy both are built in. Cholodenko understands that clarity on this point will obviate the need to manipulate, exaggerate or congratulate.
The Kids Are All Right specializes in warts-and-all revelations (to which cinematographer Igor Jadue-Lillo’s sallow, unglamorous digital-video aesthetic is handily conducive). Then it neatly mitigates them with the optimistic idea that bobo funkiness and family values might indeed live happily ever after. All right is right; now we’re really getting somewhere.