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The Kids Are All Right

Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson, Mia Wasikowsk, and Mark Ruffalo in "The Kids Are All Right"

Straining Those Family Ties

The Kids Are All Right

It’s not entirely clear from Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right whether the director (and co-writer with Stuart Blumberg) intended her film to be about one of Leo Tolstoy’s happy-in-the-same-old-way families, or his sui generis unhappy families. Of course, she may not have meant to depict either. Over the course of the film, the nuclear grouping at its center experiences both states. Since The Kids leans at least a little more in the direction of comedy than of domestic drama, and because of its essentially traditionalist ethos, I’m inclined toward the happy-family idea, but Cholodenko may not even buy into Count Tolstoy’s dichotomy, anyway. And, she may be right if she doesn’t.

The family in The Kids probably can still be characterized as unconventional, even in the socially advanced—and confused—southern California where it’s set. Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a lesbian couple living with their kids, eighteen-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Nic is a physician, the breadwinner, and something of a manager (an overmanager, in fact). Jules is the mostly stay-at-home partner who’s dabbled in career ventures over the years and has recently bought a truck with the thought she might start a landscaping business. Since she’s done this without first telling Nic, she meets a barely muted skeptical disapproval from her older lover, along with a reminder about Jules’ previously abandoned projects. So there are standing issues and discontents in this twenty-year “marriage.”

What really sets the film into its groove is Laser’s nagging curiosity about the anonymous guy whose sperm donation the two women relied on years ago. He’s too young to make an inquiry but he cajoles and guilt-trips his sister into doing it, unknown to “the moms.” As a result, they get to meet Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a chopper-riding, successful organic-restaurant owner, a congenial, temperamentally limber, hip entrepreneur.

Paul’s surprised at being contacted, and his mildly piqued curiosity about these two offspring soon develops into an affectionate sense of kinship. When the two tell the moms what they’ve done, it’s predictably enough Nic who’s anxious and a little annoyed, but an invitation to a backyard picnic ensues and Paul begins to gain an at least limited, provisional acceptance. And Cholodenko takes this new, unstabilized quintet, and her film, into a new place.

When Paul and Jules fall into an impromptu and startling—to them, not to us—liaison, the film’s tone quickly shifts from a warmly amused observation of the family’s relations to tense drama. This isn’t, in principle, as difficult a shift as it may seem. Some deft filmmakers have managed it—Hal Ashby’s mid-70s sex farce, Shampoo, comes to mind—but Cholodenko has saddled herself with a problem set.

Her treatment of the kids and their parents has until then had a warm, engagingly sympathetic tone. The get-to-know-one-another picnic scene is a funny, softly pointed depiction of clumsy friendliness, and the attempt to bridge disparities of gender, expectations, personality and experience. But there are largely unexamined and only mechanically resolved tensions threading through the film, and the new situation emphasizes them. They seem to be compounded at least partly by class and social assumptions. The Kids’ outlook is fundamentally middle-class conservative; it privileges traditionalist ideas of family. Paul’s ill-fated intervention comes across a little too much like the symbolic male who intrudes into the relationship of the two women in D.H. Lawrence’s novella, The Fox (and Mark Rydell’s 1968 movie version). Cholodenko doesn’t lose all her empathy for Paul, but he still seems too much like a plot device. The director and her film retreat back to a tension-dissipating, conventionally hopeful, and rather contrived resolution.

There is an interestingly ironic, if inconsistently sustained, note running through the movie. The kids may not be together all right, but, compared to their supposedly sophisticated, socially advanced but screwed-up elders, they really are alright.

Watch the trailer for The Kids Are All Right

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