Movie Review – The Kids Are All Right
Title: The Kids Are All Right
Starring: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo
The Kids Are All Right isn’t just about the kids. It’s the coming-of-age of an entire family. The narrative starts off with a couple of angsty kids: 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson), but it’s really the parents that are screwed up. Some indie film families are populated with quirky characters, but here the quirks are minimal. There aren’t any freaks in The Kids Are All Right, thanks to director and co-writer Lisa Cholodenko – just snooty, upper class misfits.
Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) is a lesbian couple whose marriage has gone stale. Nic is a doctor, and the provider for the family. Her wife Jules is a homemaker starting yet another business. Nic is Joni’s biological mother, while Jules is Laser’s. Both children share the same sperm donor. Joni is about to go off to a prestigious college and 15-year-old Laser is a brooding, recreational drug user. In the summer before Joni heads off to college, the siblings meet their biological father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who is just as curious about the kids as they are about him. Nic is uneasy about having another parent in her kids’ lives, but it’s really the straying wife whom she should be keeping an eye on.
There are no true cast stand-outs in The Kids Are All Right but the performances are solid enough. Nic, with her cropped, sandy pixie-cut, is the stricter parent. And Jules gives Nic the space to be that parent. Bening plays Nic as all hard angles, sipping glasses of wine, silently perched on a patio chair, staring down her nose at Paul, who dropped out of college. This makes him a Philistine in her world. She speaks matter-of-factly, without a hint of humour or irony. Moore plays Jules as the cool mom, but she’s fraught with insecurities – enough insecurities for her to treat her Mexican gardener with cringe-worth disdain.
Mark Ruffalo’s Paul is unexpectedly closest to a character that he isn’t related to – Jules. Jules sees her son in him; so of course, she hops into bed with him. Ruffalo plays the lefty, hippie type so smoothly it’s hard to tell if he’s artfully playing himself, or if he’s masterfully fusing even the most alien character to his own persona.
Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson have seamlessly bring Joni and Laser closer together. It’s a tough task, considering their characters are competing for the affections of a new parent. Wasikowska does it because she radiates more wisdom than most adults. She channels both innocent teenager and old soul. Joni is soft and quiet at first, but she’s much more assertive under Paul’s influence. And Wasikowska does it all with a gentle, crisp, cool wisdom that never quite materialized for her in this year’s Alice in Wonderland – the blockbuster that supposedly made her a star. But in The Kids Are All Right there’s no need for a sword or an increase in size for Wasikowska to be strong. Hidden behind a mane of golden hair, she speaks, not with the haughty surety of adolescence, but the quiet confidence of adulthood. Josh Hutcherson plays the sullen, teenage misfit with a lot more charisma and humour than is usual with these kids. He does it well enough for Laser to not be a teenage type, but an actual character. When Laser discovers his mother’s gay porn stash he’s surprised to find that it’s gay man kind, not gay woman kind. Nic explains that the gay woman kind is too inauthentic, but instead of understanding, he reacts with the same horror with which all kids view their parents’ sex lives.
The Kids Are All Right is meant to be an actors’ showcase, but the film never manages to shake off its stiff, inauthentic dialogue. There are infuriatingly awkward dinners with Paul, and throughout the film Nic and Jules spend their time spouting pseudo-intellectual observations. Most of the characters spend their talking over dinner tables, eating off fancy china, with Nic constantly attached to her glass of wine. There should be a payoff but there isn’t enough there. The kids learn little from Paul except perhaps that they look nothing like him. Exactly why their search for him is a mystery. He does tell Joni to be more assured, but a few months in college would have taught her that. Paul upends Nic and Jules’ marriage, but Paul is an excuse for manufactured conflict that’s boiling just below the surface anyway. Paul could have been any man ore woman who paid attention to Jules.
The film is ambitious on paper because family dramas are a tough sell. And gay family dramas are even tougher. But despite eschewing indie quirk, this family is just as vanilla as the other low-budget film families ultimately prove to be. There’s more hetero sex than gay sex. The kids are harmless. And for all Nic’s concern about Jules not earning any money, they look like they’ve weathered the financial crisis better than half of Hollywood. The conflict is artificial. You can’t imagine the ending of a marriage when one’s spouse’s worst punishment is getting relegated to sleeping on the couch. Luckily, The Kids Are All Right is populated with intelligent female characters that Hollywood wants nothing to do with. There are no dizzy love interests for the hero to gawk at, merely pretentious California liberals for him to have affairs with.