Because Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right contains a married lesbian couple at its center it's going to be pegged as a controversial movie no matter what. The fact that it is not the least bit interested in pushing hot button issues or acting as propaganda for one viewpoint or another probably won't make a difference. There are people for whom simply acknowledging the existence of a committed gay relationship is enough to have them reaching for the picket signs, but this movie cannot be held responsible for their irritability when their heads are temporarily yanked from the sand.
No, the real subject of The Kids Are All Right is family in the tradition of such films as Terms of Endearment or Hannah and Her Sisters. More exactly Kids is about the way personalities wear over the long haul of a committed relationship and the way the family unit deals with the introduction of new psuedo-members in the form of previously unknown relatives.
These have never been Hollywood's favorite topics. Hollywood generally concerns itself with the much sexier issues of getting together and only wakes up to the unglamorous concerns of staying together somewhere around that fateful day when one realizes his or her spouse has been a super-assassin the whole time.
The Kids Are All Right is about Jules and Nic, a lesbian couple entering their third decade together. Eighteen years ago they each had a child using the same sperm donor and now that their son and daughter are of age, they have the option of looking up their biological father. They do this secretly at first. "We don't want upset Momses," the girl cautions.
So into a family with the usual serving of long standing issues and tension comes Paul, the biological father. He acts as context for which all the family members can work out their long-standing gripes. Joni can use this super cool, motorcycle-riding father figure as a way to act out at her meddling parents, for example. For Nic and Jules it is more complicated. Initially they are both wary of sharing their children's affection with this unknown quantity, but when Paul gets closer to Jules buried resentments start bubbling to the surface.
Paul, for his part, is just jazzed to be involved. A single guy who has never taken much responsibility for anything in his life he is now in the position of having a family dropped fully-formed on his doorstep. Who wouldn't be curious to visit an alternate reality of themselves? In Paul's case a reality where he settled down, had kids and accepted some attachments in his free and easy lifestyle.
The actors are the main attraction here. You simply are not going to find three stronger actors in any film this year than Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as Nic and Jules and Mark Ruffalo as Paul. It's worth forking over your ticket money just to see these pros get their hands on some material that lets them to really flex their muscles. Ruffalo is particularly good at nailing a particular type of guy. The guy who is by any measure a decent, likable sort, but who is chronically incapable of thinking ahead and is tragically unpracticed in having other people's happiness dependent on his actions. He gets a rough lesson.
Mia Wasikowska, who we all recognize from Alice in Wonderland, is also a bright and appealing presence, and is up to the task of playing the lynchpin role of Joni. It's especially impressive considering much of her conflict is never explicitly spelled out. Wasikowska proves there was a gifted performer buried underneath those ten layers of dingy special effects in Wonderland.
The problem with The Kids Are All Right, the reason I'm less excited for this movie than a lot of people, is that once the table is set, once Cholodenko has all the pieces in place, she doesn't push the material hard enough. Events play out and secrets are revealed, but the screenplay skips too lightly across the surface. We never get into the guts of who these characters are, and how they really feel about each other. As the story winds down in the last thirty minutes there is too much ill-advised speech making when what really we need is to see these characters dig in and deal with the situation.
I'm not saying I need a lot of trumped up drama slathered over top of the nicely constructed world that Cholodenko has crafted. (I breathed a sigh of relief when the introduction of a motorcycle didn't lead to some contrived emergency.) What I need, simply put, is a better payoff. It's a testament, actually, to how well the film is constructed that the last half hour feels vaguely unfulfilling. At the halfway point, I believed that this group of filmmakers were really about to take me somewhere, but it lets the characters off the hook. In the end, the pleasures of the film are the pleasures of seeing some top-notch actors wring every last drop out of a script that isn't as great as they are.
But I don't want to beat up on what is really a very fine film. It's only when you compare it to something similar like You Can Count On Me that you see where it comes up short. By the end of that movie you felt like you could draw a blueprint of the ins and outs of the complexities that family's relationships. No doubt it's unfair to compare any film to the top films in its genre, but I only do it in this case to explain why a nagging sense of disappointment crept in during the last act of the film. Cholodenko is wise about the way people can do hurtful, destructive things to the people they love, but she mostly avoids delving into the consequences and the deeply buried resentments and insecurities that lead people to those actions in the first place. The Kids Are All Right leaves the impression that the real meat of the story is going to happen five years down the road when all the cracks papered over in this story reappear, worse than before.
Verdict: By all means seek this film out. It's a well-observed, beautifully acted and often funny movie. It deserves an audience. But adjust your expectations accordingly. A lot of buzz is positioning this film as the answer to 2010's lackluster slate of movies thus far, but at no point will this movie set you back on your heels or take your breath away. Rather it's the kind of movie that makes you look at your date on the way out of the theater, smile, and say honestly and without much excitement, "I liked it." 7 out of 10