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Entries in Kids are All Right/The [2010] (1)

Tuesday
Dec212010

The Kids are All Right (2010) Home Video Review

Suburban Flight

On one level, The Kids are All Right is a cloying liberal fantasy about a Prius-driving California lesbian couple and their two teen kids, Laser and Joni (after Joni Mitchell, of course).  It’s a successor to American Beauty, the reigning champion of suburban malaise satires.

But on the level that counts, this is a fantastic acting showcase that defines what it means for performers to disappear into their characters; it’s the high water mark for scenes that play as actual conversations between real people, and not just expository touch points.  There are at least five scenes that floored me with their unaffected, ad-libbed quality, and which secured Lisa Cholodenko’s film a spot in my list of this year’s favorites.

The Kids are All Right tells the story of Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore); Nic is a doctor and Jules is a free-spirited homemaker who’s looking to build a landscaping business now that Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska) are almost out of the house.  One day, Laser goads Joni into tracking down the sperm donor that their mothers used to conceive them; she does, and we are introduced to Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a bachelor restaurateur who’d all but forgotten about his donating sperm for some quick cash twenty years earlier.

Nic, the controlling matriarch, instantly dislikes slacker Paul—though much of that is just masking hurt that her kids would go behind her back to find their “real” father.  Jules is intrigued by his ability to turn a life of casual aimlessness into a career that he’s passionate about, and Paul becomes her first client.  In a move that has divided audiences since the film’s release, Jules and Paul begin a secret sexual relationship in the afternoons when she’s supposed to be overseeing the construction of his new backyard garden.  It’s not long before they’re discovered, and the fallout probably won’t surprise you.

That’s doesn’t mean The Kids are All Right is lacking in surprises.  They’re not the twisty, bizarre-left-turn kind, either.  This movie wows with subtle story flourishes that reward the audience for sticking with it; like Nic’s fantastic breakdown at a restaurant where she calls her rich, hippie friends on their bullshit, or Jules’s great speech to her family about what lifelong commitment is really about—it’s as strong a case for marriage (gay or straight) as one is likely to find in the movies.

As I said earlier, the film’s real strength lies with its actors.  The weakest of the bunch is Annette Bening, and she’s still fantastic—my problem with her lies more in the way Nic is written.  She’s painted too broadly in some scenes; watching her felt at times like an alternate-reality version of her Carolyn Burnham character from American Beauty—those kinds of buttoned-up-then-bursting theatrics work in more straightforward satire, but because The Kids are All Right revels in authenticity, Nic feels a bit out of place—and not necessarily in the way the feels intentional.  To Bening’s credit, she manages to pull Nic into the reality of the other characters by the film’s end, and her reaction to finding out about Jules and Paul is a heartbreaking parallel to Emma Thompson’s in Love Actually (coincidentally, both scenes are set to the music of Joni Mitchell).

The real heroes of The Kids are All Right are Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo.  Ruffalo has played the working-class everyman before, but he adds a wonderful layer of vulnerability here; he clashes with the perfectionist work ethic that Nic has instilled in her family, and it’s great to see her little digs penetrate, even when he makes it look like they’re bouncing off him.  Moore is note-perfect as a flake whose heart is perhaps larger than her brain (but perhaps not).  It’s remarkable how easily she inhabits this character and makes Jules a believable person, rather than a stereotypical airhead.  Some people have complained about her “switching sides” by sleeping with Paul, but in the actors’ chemistry, you can see her sexuality being overcome by lust and her long-percolating need to be appreciated.

Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska play awkward like nobody’s business, and do so unaffectedly.  They’re bitchy and confused, quiet and compassionate, and in no way resemble the polished prime-time soap stars that typically play teens in movies.  I didn’t buy the sub-plot about the moms thinking Laser was gay, but Hutcherson muscled through, lending authenticity to the artifice. And Wasikowska, who was merely a springboard for the special effects in Alice in Wonderland, springs to life as a shy overachiever discovering sexuality and self-confidence.

It would be easy to write off The Kids are All Right as a heavy-handed message movie, as progressive propaganda.  I suppose on some level it is; if you’re pre-disposed to cringe at same-sex kissing, and if the idea of a non-traditional family raising well-adjusted, smart and sensitive kids is unfathomable, then you are probably also pre-disposed to not like this movie.  But the film’s magic—due in large part to Cholodenko’s screenplay, co-written by Stuart Blumberg—lies in its disarming ability to make its whacked-out characters relatable at the primal level.  This is a flawed but beautiful movie whose performances set the standard by which all other dramas should be measured from now on.