Witty, urbane, and thoroughly entertaining, The Kids Are All Right is a grin-cracking portrait of a modern American family in minor and then major crises. Positioned somewhere between sitcom and piercing human drama, both overtly familiar and cutting edge, it is an unmistakably modern film so rooted in the now that it’s bound to be remembered as a cinematic landmark.
Nic (Annette Bening) is an intensely driven and controlling doctor sliding into that socially acceptable, four-glasses-of-wine version of alcoholism. Jules (Julianne Moore) has a lengthy and varied succession of failed businesses behind her. Their lesbian household is uprooted by the arrival of roguish, motorcycle-riding Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the biological father of Nic and Jules’ teenage kids. Their eldest, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) has just turned 18 and made a call to the sperm bank on behalf of her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Despite the parents’ efforts, Paul becomes a tentative, adjunct member of the family.
The actors are to die for. Bening and Moore are superb as the self-involved partners, evoking a long-running marriage that’s hitting a slippery, middle-age danger zone – all of the idealism and compromise, shadings and secrets that goes along with it – and nailing every nuance of a relationship going adrift. Ruffalo is dynamite as a man keeping himself at a distance. In fact, this gem features five multidimensional performances, from five gifted actors at the top of their games, as five people in search of what makes a family, in one of the summer’s most engaging films.
Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon) makes her little clan seem completely run-of-the-mill. Similar to her previous films, it has vivid characters and strong performances and flows like a slice of life set in an appealing, interesting world. But this one also has a good story and, if you’re paying attention, a distinct point of view. It respects and enjoys all of its members, the give-and-take and recklessness and wisdom of any functioning family unit.
Conventional and unconventional in equal measure, The Kids Are All Right is a ruefully funny, beautifully acted, and casually profound comedy of manners in the vein of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Scenes from a Marriage, and American Beauty. It’s an affirmative warts-and-all portrait, not a Bergmanian descent into the pit of marital darkness. Watching two fine actresses as unglamorous, flawed, complicated women is a rare privilege. In every moment and every breath, we feel that Nic and Jules have created something that, damaged as it is, must be saved.
The Kids Are All Right is also more thrillingly universal than it is alternative, except in one sense: There’s nothing else on the contemporary movie landscape like it. Somehow, it is outrageously funny without exaggerating for comic effect, and heartbreaking with a bare minimum of melodramatic embellishment. The self-satire is so rich and so knowing that it blows all thoughts of degeneracy out of your head.
Randy, true, beautifully written, and impeccably played, this warm, sexy, smart movie erases the boundaries between specialized “gay content” and universal “family content” with such sneaky authority. It’s a comedy that doesn’t take cheap shots, a drama that doesn’t manipulate, a movie of ideas that doesn’t preach. Rich, layered, and juicy, touching and hilarious in its upheaval, with quiet revelations punctuated by big laughs, it opens the door to a brand new examination of family values that leaves you charged and cheering.
From dinner-table repartee over thank-you cards that Joni hasn’t yet written (“If it were up to you, our kids wouldn’t even write thank-you cards, they’d just send out good vibes”) to a too-much-information conversation with Laser about their taste for “gay man-porn,” Nic and Jules are facing age-old questions of parenting in a subtly altered context. All we need is a single moment of perfection – in a family, or in a film – to believe that somehow, things will always be all right. In this case, “all right” doesn’t begin to describe it.