More Than All Right
FILM REVIEW A chronicler of bohemian transgression has given us a gorgeous (funny) morality play LUKE BAUMGARTEN
It’s odd to think that writer-director Lisa Cholodenko is going less bohemian with this story of two lesbians, their two children and their one sperm donor, but there it is. Both her previous features, High Art (1998) and Laurel Canyon (2002), dealt with the arts and casual infidelity as a kind of forging fire that hones people to their truest selves.
The Kids Are All Right is much more conventional than that, in terms of its ethics and in terms of its structure. What Cholodenko has delivered here is almost a morality play in which the ways we hurt each other in these ruefully complex times are shown to be the ways we’ve been hurting each other since the beginning.
Neglect, unkindness, resentment, repression. These things don’t change, regardless of our sexual politics.
There’s little dottering around: We enter with a family at a point of transition. Jules (Julianne Moore), Mom No. 1, has just bought a truck for her new landscaping business (which has no clients yet). Her eldest daughter, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) has just turned 18, and her 15-year-old brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) asks Jules to contact their sperm donor. (Nic, played by Annette Bening, is Laser’s mother and Mom No. 2. Jules and Nic bore one child each — they used sperm, though, from the same guy.)
That guy turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the extremely hip though not traditionally educated (read: drop-out) owner of an extremely hip organic, locally-sourced restaurant named WYSIWYG.
Which creates some complications. It’s bad enough that “the moms,” as they’re called, have to say goodbye to Joni, who’s off soon to college. Even worse, Jules and Nic will have to share Joni, during her final summer at home, with this dude Paul — someone they’ve never regarded as human. (He was just a means to an end, but now the kids have grown attached to him.)
For Paul’s part, he’d nearly forgotten donating sperm as a 19-year-old, nearly 20 years ago. Finding out that he has not one, but two kids, is a shock.
The Kids Are All Right is all over pitch-perfect. The writing sings, the direction is uncomplex and unself-conscious, self-assured in its simplicity.
Tying it together are the gorgeous performances of Moore and Bening. The way Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg’s script plays with the subtle digs and slights in the relationship between Nic and Jules is revelatory. Over the course of a 20-year relationship, it turns out, partners get better at hurting the other, not worse. It’s odd that more screenwriters (or actors or directors) don’t realize this.
Ruffalo has said in an interview that Cholodenko was very free and trusting, letting him take the performance where he felt the character would. I have to assume that was the case with all the actors. You don’t turn in performances like Bening and especially Moore do here without being incredibly comfortable.
It’s impossible to describe their first interactions, around a table, the gang all gathered before meeting Paul for the first time. The couple trade smiling daggers that get at what will come to be their essential flaws: Jules is a flake, and Nic is a control freak.
It’s funny, and the exchange even feels warm, but you can tell in the eyes that there’s resentment.
I’d gone into the film thinking the primary battles would be the couple vs. the interloper sperm donor, fought on the field of their children’s affections. There’s some of that, sure, but it was clear then — about five minutes in — that The Kids Are All Right was going to be more about the parents who most definitely aren’t.
Paul — who always acts more as a cool older brother than a father — seems to connect with the kids better than either woman does, and that’s hard for the moms to accept.
And while the film is beautifully acted, one climactic scene could not have come about except through perfect writing. There, Cholodenko and Blumberg touch on the kind of helplessness that comes from years spent seeing yourself reflected in your partner, a kind of objectification I’ve never heard put quite this way.
It’s not an excuse, it’s an apology, offered with all the contriteness you might expect from good, caring, flawed moms like these kids have.
I was chewing on that scene through the final minutes.
What sealed The Kids Are All Right as a classic film about family came at the very end, though —when I realized the credits were rolling and one absolutely crucial element of the plot had been left beautifully and necessarily unresolved.