A great deal of fuss has already been made of Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbian family dramedy The Kids are All Right. Setting precedent as arguably the most pedigreed American film to feature queer women who don’t wield ice picks or set Manderlay ablaze in a jealous fit of rage, this Sundance hit has piqued the interest – as well as scrutiny – of queer audiences who hope finally to see their lives reflected substantially in a major motion picture. Whether or not the movie succeeds in giving audiences a socially responsible portrayal of a happy, healthy homo family could be debated extensively, but apparent cultural baggage is easily the movie’s least interesting point of discussion. What make The Kids are All Right a truly compelling work are its thematically complex narrative, its beautifully written characters, and the intelligent performers who orchestrate the material with delicacy, empathy, and wit.
The performers in question are led by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, who respectively play Jules and Nic, a long-married couple living in an impeccably-kept home with their two children. Jules and Nic, whose mutual love is never in question, grapple with issues bound to occur after twenty years of marital bliss; the sex is not as thrilling as it once was, their fundamental perspectives on parenting have diverged, and as their children move increasingly close to adulthood the alarming notion of the empty nest looms overhead. Both women have their own midlife coping mechanisms: Jules has recently begun her own landscaping company and Nic indulges herself with more glasses of wine than she probably needs.
The titular kids here include Joni (Mia Wasikowska), the moms’ studious and college-bound daughter, and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), a teenage boy whose antics with his ill-behaved best friend – drug-using, Jackass-worthy skateboard stunts – embody the classic perception of awkward teenage boneheadedness. With Joni turning 18, Laser increasingly pressures his big sister to take advantage of one of her unique new adult privileges: to determine the identity of their mothers’ sperm donor. Joni relents, and she finally tracks down their biological father Paul (Mark Ruffalo), an amicable albeit id-driven restaurant owner with minimal responsibilities and seemingly little desire grow up. Eventually, Paul makes a connection with the recently-acquainted fruit of his loins, and their budding relationship adds a new, alien complexity to Jules and Nic’s family dynamic.
Though The Kids are All Right ultimately moved me, I cannot say I was enamored right away. Perhaps due to the aforementioned cultural baggage, there exists an impulse on Cholodenko’s part to portray this unconventional family and their problems as utterly conventional. This impulse makes for some rather labored exposition, the brunt of which happens in the movie’s first dinner table sequence. Cholodenko and her co-writer Stuart Blumberg scribe just the perfect exchanges and banter to inform you exactly who these characters are and how they tick. It is a moment of such precise button-pushing that I began to worry The Kids might in the end have little else to offer but manipulation and maudlin sentiment.
But Chodolenko eventually entrusts the actors with her characters, and they are the ones who truly give the movie its potency. The way they carry each line tells more about the characters and their history than any amount of wobbly exposition possibly could. Indeed, there is not a weak performance in the bunch. As the familial interloper, Ruffalo’s Paul is an entirely genial presence, and even if the film ultimately works out of his favor, at no point is he dismissed as the film’s antagonist. The film’s young performers nail their roles as well, and work quite effectively as the film’s moral center. Wasikowska – whom we last saw playing Alice in the most recent Tim Burton debacle – is as sharp as the character she plays, and Hutcherson adds emotional resonance to the movie’s most underwritten role.
As great as the supporting cast is, however, the true standouts are the moms. Bening feels like she is playing a more nuanced variation of the driven woman she developed for American Beauty, and Moore further establishes herself as queer filmmakers’ most powerful ally in the acting world (see The Hours, Far from Heaven, and A Single Man for further evidence). There is an important moment relatively early in the movie – where Nic and Jules, over lunch, recount the day they met – that beautifully exemplifies the two actresses’ chemistry. Their story is told with a perfectly recited cadence and feels lovingly rehearsed, as if the couple had spent the previous twenty years determining exactly how it ought to be told. Lesser actors would have treated this as throwaway banter. Bening and Moore find a layer of texture I am not sure the writers ever perceived.
It is exchanges like the lunch sequence that bring The Kids are All Right its sense of purpose. It is less about the ideas it presents than it is about the characters and the world they have made for themselves. All five principle characters feel truly and painfully real, neither explicitly demanding our sympathy nor imploring us to take sides in their conflicts. That’s quite a feat, taking into account how each character at some point commits a selfish and hurtful act against somebody else. Perhaps this is why the lack of resolution and general messiness of the admittedly hopeful denouement feel perfectly suited to the story that preceded it. I truly believe that one day Jules and Nic will come to terms with all the problems they face in this story. But it will take a lot more than a 100-minute movie for them to find out where they stand.
Thank goodness the actors and filmmakers chose not to compartmentalize their characters and the issues they face; their sense of warmth and empathy has resulted in one of the year’s best films so far, queer-themed or otherwise.