“The Kids Are All Right” opens with the image of a teenage kid on a bike, who we will come to like, and another kid on a skateboard, who we pretty much want to see punched in the face from the moment he tips over the recycle bin into the street 15 seconds into the film. But it’s this first boy who matters to the film—his name is Laser, but we aren’t supposed to hold that against him, and to actor Josh Hutcherson’s credit, we don’t. He is mostly all right, as is his older sister, Joni (Mia Wasikowska, looking more alive and quietly pretty here than in “Alice in Wonderland” where the ghostly makeup Tim Burton seems to require for all actresses appearing in his films disguised the innocent and warm qualities of her features). They are both fine and likeable, as are their lesbian parents, Jules and Nic, played to casual and convincing effect by Julianne Moore and Annette Benning, respectively.
The only thing not all right with the kids is that they are nearly grown (Joni is headed to college come fall) and do not know who their biological father is. They were both conceived—one to each mother (the “Moms” as they are affectionately referred to collectively by Joni and Laser)—with sperm from the same anonymous donor. Through a quick and simple process, Paul (Mark Ruffalo, playing the role of an impossibly cool self-made hipster effortlessly—can we even count this as acting?) is brought into the picture, though Moms may not be so all right with this.
|The Kids: Clearly Alright|
But Paul’s presence is handled with intelligent nuance—Joni and Laser’s reactions are starkly different and don’t reconcile even by the film’s end. It’s a pleasant change of pace to see teenagers written with emotional complexity in a film. Paul himself is a difficult character to read even in his final moments in the film—his motivations seem both genuine and thoughtless, hopeful and naïve. It’s a compliment to director and co-writer Lisa Cholodenko that the movie is so comfortable with ambiguity. It’s ultimately a drama about family relationships, but it is rare to find such a film so comfortable with painting every family member in shades of gray.
She handles the modern-day nuclear family expertly as well—Jules and Nic struggle with the same issues heterosexual parents and couples do, and they fail as often as they succeed at making parenting decisions. Their relationship involves daily swims through the choppy waters of everyday life together. In short, exactly what a real-life functional relationship looks like, gay or straight. Cholodenko’s strongest achievement in the film centers around the fact that the lesbian relationship is NOT its centerpiece. “Brokeback Mountain” was considered groundbreaking (and politically, male homosexuality tends to cause more conservative bristling than lesbianism), but here is a film that is of a different sort of importance to film history: it’s a story where two central characters happen to be homosexual without the plot of the film being about their sexual relationship. It is simply a part of the emotional setting of a story about two kids and their relationships with the adults in their world (the new arrival AND the ones they’ve trusted all their lives).
Joni is at the center of this, and Wasikowska plays the role well, seeming at times to betray an innocent crush on her “father” who runs an organic farm and a restaurant serving only fresh cuisine, and who seems simply to be too good to be true for a girl of her disposition (the script smartly includes a hyper-sexed friend of Joni’s at key moments to juxtapose Joni’s innocent adoration of Paul with the more raw and promiscuous attraction of the average teenage crush). His perfection as a male version of the (to steal the AV Club’s wonderfully accurate term) “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” character (see also Kirsten Dunst’s role in “Elizabethtown” or Zooey Daschanel in “500 Days of Summer”) is one of the script’s few weaknesses. His lifestyle doesn’t entirely make sense. He is all of the things an independent hipster of an 18-year-old would wish for in a boyfriend, or father in this case, and in combination elements of his career and background don’t seem to mesh logically (how many local organic farmers are independently wealthy in their 40s?). It’s a minor flaw, but in conjunction with Cholodenko’s insistence on wearing her indie credibility on the movie’s sleeves (quite literally—try to keep count of all the t-shirts in the film screaming at the viewer that every character present has been to Bonnaroo festival and listens to the latest indie bands. I’m a huge fan of both the fest and indie bands, but within the film it’s laid on so thick you find yourself rolling your eyes—we get it, this is a hip crowd). It doesn’t diminish the film’s emotional core in any way, but with a landscape increasingly entangled with the growth of indie scrub brush, it would’ve been nice to see such a capable director eschew such blatant appeals to an audience that would’ve happily sat through this one without the bells and whistles to draw them in.
Near the end of the film Joni makes a comment to Paul that is so simple and adolescent and (I only realized this after letting the film digest for a few days) emotionally devastating that it seems to tear the entire contents of their relationship from their moorings, but wonderfully, what becomes of those contents is left to the ethereal place characters disappear to when the credits blot them from our view.
Overall Score: 7.7/10