The Kids Are All Right (2010): United States – directed by Lisa Cholodenko
Rated R by the MPAA – contains sexual content, some nudity, strong language, mature themes, California
The Kids Are All Right appears, on the surface, to be a conventional family drama/comedy about an unconventional family. Normally, if one were to praise a film, he or she might comment with something like, “but it goes so much deeper,” or “but if you look really closely.” Unfortunately, The Kids Are All Right barely manages to successfully be a conventional film about an unconventional family.
Nick (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) have been together for many years. They have two kids, but not together, obviously. They used the same sperm donor, so the “father” is the same, but Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson) have always grown up having two moms. And they are a perfectly normal, happy family. Joni has graduated from high school and is about to move on to college. Laser has a troublesome friend named Clay (Eddie Hassell), but is really more interested in something else.
No, he’s not gay, as his moms suppose. Instead he seems to be interested in the idea of a father. This is never stated, and indeed Laser seems to become less important as the movie progresses, but it is this curiosity that drives the drama. As Joni is eighteen, she is able to call the cryo clinic from which their moms received the sperm. Joni is not particularly interested, but Laser eventually convinces her.
Enter Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a cool, organic, locally-grown college dropout who runs his own restaurant. He doesn’t seem to have a problem running with women, but his steadiest fling seems to be consistent one night stands with the same woman. But he’s scruffy and dirty, and seems to attract all types. After an awkward initial meeting with Joni and Laser, he soon becomes part of their lives. Jules, who is attempting to start up her own landscape design company, soon takes him on as a client (and then something more). Nick, meanwhile, remains her controlling self, working as a doctor and keeping the family in line. All she has ever wanted was a wife to stay at home and watch over their children.
Naturally, drama ensues, and eventually most everything is resolved. Along the way there are plenty of awkward family moments, heartfelt discussions, attempts at making up, poor parenting, interloping, and the like. Very little of it is convincing, however, and by the time the dramatic make-or-break moment occurs I had stopped caring entirely.
The film has been mentioned in a variety of awards categories, and recently won a couple Golden Globes. The critical reception has been generally positive, but it’s hard to see why. Is it the quirky, avante-garde concept of a two-mommed family? Is it because this unconventional family displays such traditional family values? Much has been made of the acting. The kids are fine, with Wasikowska having more opportunity for range than she did in Alice in Wonderland [review here]. Hutcherson isn’t given much to work with, but occupies his role satisfactorily. Ruffalo is probably the most convincing, as a grungy hip Californian living life to its fullest. Moore is fine, though some of her lines tend toward melodrama. Bening, on the other hand, has the misfortune of playing the most miserable character, and being given the most absurd lines. “I need your observations like I need a dick in my ass” is one that evoked only a loud guffaw. Almost each meaningful line of hers is atrocious, written poorly and poorly delivered.
There are a number of awkward family moments, but these can occasionally be funny. The British know how to make awkward comedy an art form. Not so the Americans, at least those responsible for this film. Some dinner scenes are only mildly cringe-worthy, and even amusing, but others are downright terrifying. When two characters spontaneously break into a Joni Mitchell song in a spurt of forced reconciliation, it is almost unbearable to watch.
The children really ground the picture, and are the most realistic of all the characters. Nick and Jules struggle with the same problems as any married couple, but their problems seemed forced on them, as if to make the viewer aware that lesbian couples can cope and struggle and survive just as well as heterosexual couples.
The technical aspects are occasionally disappointing. It looks as though it were shot on cheap digital cameras at times, washed out and drab without intention. The soundtrack is forgettable, and its attempts at hip quirkiness fall short. All other aspects are adequate, worthy of neither disdain nor praise.
Very little happens in the film, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But as the ending nears, the tone becomes more uneven than it is throughout the first two-thirds of the film. Is it a marital drama? A coming of age tale? A story of adultery and dysfunctional family? The Kids Are All Right dabbles in each genre, and never fully explores any one. Bening has been in a far superior story of dysfunctional family life, with American Beauty, and some comparison between the films would not be inappropriate. But The Kids Are All Right can hardly succeed at being The Kids Are All Right, and any comparison to a better film would be unfair.