Review: The Kids Are All Right

Family drama can be cliché, but not when that family consists of a teenage brother and sister and their two moms. Hollywood’s family dramas have yet to break out of the traditional family structure for obvious albeit not necessarily defensible reasons, but independent film promoter Focus Features has found a gem of one in Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right.”

Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) were born to a lesbian couple, Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening), using the sperm of an anonymous donor. Joni, now 18 and in her last summer before college, decides along with her brother to seek out her biological father, who it turns out is a local farmer/restaurant owner named Paul (Mark Ruffalo). His presence in their lives begins to challenge and complicate the relationships in this already unique family unit.

“The Kids Are All Right” relies initially on our interest in the dynamic of a two-mother household and at times on some soap opera-like plot devices, but the film couldn’t be less shallow. The characters have remarkable depth and complexity and the writing and acting feels more sincere and genuine than any other indie film of this kind.

Rarely does a film get so quickly on the same page with its audience. There’s something about Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg’s character writing and the terrific actors bringing them to life that creates an instantaneous connection where you know exactly how each main character feels and what they are thinking in a given moment. Everything about the interplay between characters is so organic and natural. The first time Paul meets his “kids” you identify with the situation both he and the kids are in, how he tries to be cool yet you can see his concern with making a good impression. Then there’s the kids who go into the scenario with distinct attitudes that are instantly challenged by Paul’s laid back, chill personality.

Ruffalo has never been better. So many films have free-spirited college dropout characters who haven’t settled down and then are challenged in that lifestyle by some unexpected event, but Ruffalo lets us in below the surface. Paul is not “that character” at all and it’s comforting to know that a character can have so many “typical” traits yet feel fresh and distinct instead of an indie dramedy cliché.

Then there’s Bening and Moore in outstanding roles. Both take lead at different points in the film, which is part of what makes Cholodenko’s film so effective. Nic and Jules’ screen time is balanced and both generate equal sympathy for their characters, so when conflict arises between the two, both sides are clear, the audience sees where both characters come from and thus “Kids” never feels one-dimensional in its themes and ideas.

Most people will gravitate toward Bening’s performance as the more concerned of the two moms. She’s strong and likable yet definitely flawed, but the biggest difference is in the subtlety of her flaws, her controlling nature and need to feel in charge of her kids and family. The cause-and-effect nature of events that drive the plot in terms of relationship tension echo this too.

All the main characters have strong and resonant emotional vulnerability, which makes them so compelling to us. Even Hutcherson and especially Wasikowska — a truly gifted actress — play more than your typical roller-coaster emotional teens. Each has something to gain from having Paul in his or her life, but each has an issue to wrestle with as part of it.

Most importantly, “The Kids Are All Right” still touches on important family themes despite a more “radical” premise. The simultaneous sympathy for all characters that Cholodenko has beautifully crafted makes the resolution of conflict so much more meaningful and the message of unconditional love all the more powerful. It’s further proof that the best dramas, the ones that leave the biggest impact, paint characters in many shades of gray and not just politically speaking.

4.5/5 Stars

The Kids Are All Right
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko
Written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg
Starring: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska

1 Comment

  1. Michael Moramarco says:

    Damn… Now I’ll have to find a theatre playing it pronto now…

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