- Family time: From left, Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson, Mia Wasikowska and Mark Ruffalo
In The Kids Are All Right, the story of a long-time lesbian couple whose teen-age children contact the sperm donor who made them possible, nothing very unusual happens. That's a good thing, because it doesn't problematize the "non-traditional" family, nor even refer to it as such.
But this sort of endeavor (we can't yet call it a trend) also leads the storytellers to draw upon the tropes and conflicts of conventional drama: One kid and one parent like the biological father, the other of each doesn't. Where can you go with a story like this, except to eschew "story" altogether?
I wish The Kids Are All Right inspired me to do more than analyze it. It's beautifully acted, and its emotional high points reverberate. But its characters are finally all too likable, and director/writer Lisa Cholodenko, who made the edgy, lesbian-tinged High Art a while back, tries so hard to be nonchalant that she ends up crafting a somewhat cursory movie.
The greatest pleasure of The Kids Are All Right comes from watching Annette Bening and Julianne Moore give two handsomely modulated performances. Bening is Nic, the older of the two and the breadwinner: She's a doctor, always in control and watchful of her brood. Moore is Jules, whom Nic met in the emergency room some 20 years ago, when Jules showed up with a numb tongue. (The movie's humor is very wry and subtle.)
They each had a child with sperm from the same donor: Joni (Mia Wasikowska) is 18, the class valedictorian and college-bound; Laser (Josh Hutcherson), 15 and quiet (but not brooding), hangs out with a moronic skateboarder pal who thinks it's cool to pee on stray dogs.
Laser wants to learn about their biological father, but because he's a minor, Joni makes contact. Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who was 19 when he donated his sperm, never finished college and prefers to do things rather than talk about things. He owns a restaurant, and he needs a landscaper, so he hires the unfocused Jules -- her first client for yet another of her many new business ventures financed over the years by Nic. When Jules begins a sweaty affair with Paul, you sort of hope Nic won't find out. But she does, followed by a reel of tension, just like you'd expect there to be.
Cholodenko tells her story with an unforced rhythm and a naturalistic tone, and the acting seems slightly improvisational. The relationships feel honest and balanced, and we've come far enough culturally to believe that having lesbian parents wouldn't rattle these kids, especially in California. Her script, co-written with Stuart Blumberg, hints at the complexity of lesbian sexuality just enough to keep us interested, if not thoroughly enlightened.
The Kids Are All Right is the kind of movie that serious actors love to make and serious filmgoers love to see. It couldn't have been easy for Cholodenko to get the money to do it. So I admire it and recommend it, although I do hope her next film will find a way back to dramatizing outside the box.
Starts Fri., July 23.