All the Right Notes

Lisa Cholodenko liberates the lesbian family in this touching slice-of-life drama

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Kids Are All Right is that there aren’t more films like it. LGBT cinema is long overdue for mainstream success. For all the splash that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain made, it wasn’t a mainstream film. Worse yet, its story supported an oft repeated cautionary tale about gays that Hollywood cooked up a half-century ago. Even great movies such as Boys Don’t Cry and Mysterious Skin exist in a dark netherworld of societal cruelty.

That’s where writer/director Lisa Cholodenko makes a beeline departure. The Kids Are All Right lives in the kind of nurturing environment that you might imagine sex columnist Dan Savage maintains with his partner to raise their son. In a funny way, Cholodenko has stripped away all of the artifice and bullshit to show a family grappling with multiple predicaments of growth and interaction.

The mid-life parenting crisis of a lesbian couple (awesomely played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening) is the narrative cornerstone for a memorable comedic family drama. Together for 20 years, Nic (Bening) and Jules (Moore) raise their teenage children Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasilkowska) in the comfort of a well-appointed Los Angeles home.

The couple’s teenage son hangs out with a juvenile bully, while 18-year-old Joni tracks down the man who anonymously donated his sperm to their mom, Jules. Their biological father turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a groovy motorcycle-riding restaurateur with a passion for locally grown vegetables and a bevy of attractive women. Paul warms quickly to the idea of acting out his fatherhood fantasies, soon ingratiating himself into Jules’s and Nic’s family. He even offers to become Jules’s first landscape design client. When fireworks ignite between Jules and Paul, the story turns into an exploration of desire, honesty and loyalty in an unconventional familial setting.

Cholodenko’s precise plotting, canny dialogue and spot-on production design complement solid performances from the lively ensemble cast. The Kids Are All Right is a thoroughly cohesive and entertaining movie that celebrates LGBT relationships in a long-term family setting.

There’s a scene in the film when Nic and Jules are getting back to a favored fetish of watching gay male porn while getting it on. Someone rolls onto the remote and the television volume goes blasting. Their daughter Joni hears it and is appropriately shocked. The scene is rich with affection, humor, surprise and farcical interaction. We see and hear the subconscious levels of well-meaning people living out their lives with an understated complexity that is intrinsically life-affirming. It’s like a moment from a great Woody Allen film, but without the overbearing artifice.

Later in the film, Nic lets loose with an acapella rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” at Paul’s dinner table with the whole family as her audience. It’s a transcending moment that allows Bening to jump off a cliff with her character, knowing that the safety net of the situation and storyline will catch her. It’s breathtaking. So too are the adulterous assignations that Jules and Paul share during her days working on his garden design.

We understand exactly where motivations and objectives get tangled up and confuse the characters because the filmmaker has laid such meticulously layered narrative groundwork. Here are people like us, who want things they can’t have because they’ve made other choices. The decision to have children has created an internal combustion for Nic and Jules. Now that Joni is going off to college, and Laser is defining who he wants to be, the moms are coming up short for answers. Paul’s influence on Joni and Laser is massive, but his inability to control his attraction to Jules and respect her marriage to Nic ends up costing him more than he bargained.

Next to his work in David Fincher’s Zodiac, The Kids Are All Right represents Ruffalo’s finest work. It’s fascinating to watch him play against such incredibly seasoned actresses as Bening and Moore, who also deliver career-topping work. From an acting standpoint, this is a movie that gives its actors the context and space to run full tilt. You’ll like it.

The Kids are All Right (PG-13) ★★★★☆

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