© 2010 Ray Wong
An indie dramedy about a lesbian couple raising two teenage kids seems like an odd summer movie, but The Kids Are All Right has an all-star cast that offers something different.
Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) have been together for over twenty years and they have two children together, both through artificial insemination. Joni (Mia Wasikowska) is now 18 and going to college, and Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is her more laid-back, aimless younger brother: Nic is Joni's biological mother and Jules Laser's, and they used the same sperm donor. Laser is curious about their biological father, and since Joni is now of age, he asks his sister to inquire about the identity of the donor.
Their search leads them to Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a womanizing restauranteur who happens to live in the same town. Paul is surprised but pleased by the fact that he has sired two beautiful children, even though he never wanted a family of his own. He becomes more involved with the kids' lives, to Nic's objection. Jules, meanwhile, thinks it's not a bad idea even though she and Nic have agreed that they don't want Paul to upset the balance of their tight family.
Julianne Moore (A Single Man) has an eclectic resume, and is widely regarded as an actor's actor of our generation. She plays the more laid-back half of the couple, who in her mid-40s is still trying to find herself. Jules has been living in the shadow of her more successful, more controlling partner, and Moore does a great job conveying that frustration and conflict. In many ways, she plays a typical "mother" role if it were a "traditional" family.
If Moore's the omega, then Annette Bening (Running with Scissors) would be the alpha; the butch, the breadwinner, the "man" of the house. Bening successfully makes her character believable and still feminine without resorting to the stereotypes. Granted, she is playing the more dominant and controlling partner, but Bening is able to channel something deeply emotional under the colder, more calculated surface.
Mark Ruffalo (Shutter Island) is the go-to guy to play the "drifter," which he did very well in his breakout film, You Can Count On Me. He has that guy-next-door charm that makes you want to like him, even though instinctively you know something is not quite right with the guy. Mia Wasikowska (Amelia) is wonderfully withdrawn, smart and vulnerable as Joni, who is rather the moral center of the story (if there were a narrator, I'd imagine it being Joni). Josh Hutcherson (Journey to the Center of the Earth) is good as the quiet, introspective son who lives in everyone's shadow including his smart sister.
Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon) and Stuart Blumberg (The Girl Next Door) keep the story simple and focused. They choose to tell the story over one summer, before Joni goes off to college. The strength of the screenplay is the character study. These characters seem real and ordinary, as if they could be our neighbors or relatives. These three-dimensional characters (even the minor characters seem to have more dimensions than simply delivering lines) are well drawn and their relationships are complex. That and the realistic dialogue give the story a down-to-earth quality and highly relatable.
The problem, though, is that the story is predictable and clichéd. OK, I'm sure families like theirs exist in the real world, with similar issues and heartaches and complications. I'm sure stories like theirs are happening right now, somewhere in the world. However, that's exactly why the story and the plot feel old-fashioned and recycled, because we've seen that many times before. While the characters and situations are well-played, I can't help but feel that they've been drawn from the some checklist: domineering partner, check; confused and underappreciated lover, check; children suffocated by their overbearing parents, check; dashing interloper who upsets their seemingly perfect family, check; hidden relationship problems, check… The list goes on and on.
There are plot points that feel contrived and forced, simply to lead us to a predictable place. Such plot contrivance diminishes the impact of the emotions because it doesn't feel organic. At one point I just want to yell, "Talk to each other already!" The problem also is that many of the characters are passive, at least emotionally. The least developed character has to be Laser, the son -- we kind of don't know what he's about, except that he's yet another rebelling teenager. There's a missed opportunity when Jules and Nic suspect Laser could be gay: the situation is ripe with possibilities for hilarity and depth and further development of Laser's character (or Jules' conflicting feelings about being gay), but it misses the mark.
While Cholodenko's direction is workman-like and adequate, she also lacks the finesse that makes the film truly outstanding. The pace meanders at times; even as a character study, the plot feels a bit too circular. As I said, there are parts of the film that feel forced and contrived just to move the characters from A to B.
It's too bad. If not for the lackluster story, the movie could have been something more. Its strength relies on the performances and realistic dialogue. I suspect Bening and Moore could get their respective Oscar nominations for their nuanced portrayals and for making us believe in their relationship. The kids are all right, too.
Stars: Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Writers: Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, nudity, language, teen drug and alcohol use
Running Time: 106 minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 9
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 7.1 out of 10