It´s odd to think that writer-director Lisa Cholodenko is going less bohemian with this story of two lesbians, their two children and 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 more conventional in terms of its ethics and structure.
Cholodenko has almost delivered 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. The weapons don’t change, regardless of our sexual politics.
But this is a comedy, for God’s sake — and a brisk one — so let’s start with that.
We enter with a family at a point of transition. Jules (Julianne Moore) — Mom No. 1 — has just purchased a truck for her new landscaping business, which has no clients yet. Eldest daughter, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) has just turned 18, and her 15-year-old brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) asks her to contact their sperm donor, since she’s now of age. Mom No. 2, Nic (Annette Bening), is not OK with this.
The sperm-giver turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the extremely hip though not traditionally educated (read: drop-out) owner of an extremely hip, organic and locally sourced restaurant.
Paul creates some complications. It’s bad enough that “the moms” are sending Joni off to college. Now they’ll have to share her, during her final summer at home, with some dude whose contribution to child-rearing was a gamete of chromosomes.
The Kids Are All Right is pitch-perfect all over. The writing sings, the direction is self-assured in its simplicity. Why Ruffalo doesn’t have John Cusack cuddly-hot star power is beyond me.
Tying it together are gorgeous performances by Moore and Bening. The way Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg’s play 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 each other, not worse.
It’s impossible to describe their first interactions, with the gang all gathered around a table. The couple trade smiling daggers that hint 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.
One assumes the primary conflict would be couple vs. interloper sperm donor, fought on the field of their children’s affections. Increasingly, the women’s lives together come to the fore, and The Kids Are All Right becomes a film about parents who most definitely aren’t.