The Kids Are All Right

Wears its indie badge with pride, for better and for worse.

When dramas about race, sexuality or the Holocaust abound in the autumn months, one’s guard almost immediately goes up. As critics, perhaps we are too trained to root out so-called “Oscar bait”, yet everything about the marketing for The Kids Are All Right had me convinced that it was nothing but. After all, is a warm, pandering statement about how we’re all people not to be defined by mere labels really what we need? That the film, while entirely undeserving of the persistent Oscar buzz it has recieved, makes the central lesbian relationship almost incidental to the family story is a brave move for two reasons; it dares to deviate from an obvious “Queer Cinema” veneer, which may alienate the expected target audience, and resultingly resists the temptation to rest on its laurels as a fluffy, quirky unconventional family pic.

Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) are the aforementioned lesbian couple, living in California with their son, Laser (Josh Hutcherson), and daughter, Joni (Mia Wasikowska). Both Jules and Nic had a child each via a sperm donor, and when Joni turns eighteen, Laser convinces her to contact their biological father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a fun, laid-back restauranteur who represents a very different way of life compared to the stricter mode employed by their mothers. Indeed, the kids are all right, and it is the adults – particularly Jules and Nic – who must temper their worries that Paul is going to usurp their carefully-preened family unit.

The most alluring thing initially about The Kids Are All Right is that it is not a heart-bleeding essay on homosexual child rights, but instead a charming and witty, if surprisingly slight film about morality and family values. Had it been pitched as a “straight” drama, it would, in fact, have worked almost as well, but the most startling aspect about writing the characters as lesbians is that it allows Moore and Bening to give their acting chops a work-out, and some undeniably winning comic situations are teased out of the offbeat dynamic.

It is a film that gender and sexuality classes will likely study in the future; Moore’s Jules, feminine, submissive, is the prototypical Mrs. of the family, while Bening’s Nic, a short-haired and bread-winning doctor, is the man, and though the dynamic is arguably a stereotype, it follows that stereotypes often carry a large heft of truth. The stirred pot of gender identity creates an interesting dynamic for Bening’s character especially; when the gravity of Paul’s arrival hits her, she must maintain a strong, repressed, authoritarian front, but alas, she is not the emotionally shallow she-male that a more cliched film might presuppose, and thus the situation becomes a whole lot more complicated.

Not a whole lot more can be said about the narrative because of the game-changing twist about half-way through. Needless to say, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko does a solid job balancing some familar coming-of-age elements – lightly touching on the burgeoning adulthood of Wasikowska’s Joni – with an unconventional story of family crisis and tolerance, which never goes overboard into histrionics nor comes across as too pat or condescending.

Most interesting, despite the dedicated work of the femme leads, however, is Mark Ruffalo’s turn as Paul. Cholodenko’s clever positioning of his character, painting him as a contented bohemian whose back-of-the-mind pangs for a family just won’t go away, makes for a surprise-filled climax, in which character motivations and actions jump up out of nowhere, yet are justified entirely by what has followed. Ruffalo, massively instrumental in making the film’s difficult dramatic crux work, delivers the most enigmatic, charming, and thought-provoking turn of the bunch.

It would have been easy for The Kids Are All Right to become comfortably slotted into the slew of self-consciously hip dramedies that usually get Best Original Screenplay nominations at the Oscars. While this accolade is likely – and Cholodenko naming the son character Laser is a cringe-inducingly Californian thing to do – the film lives and dies on the strength of its performances and the gorgeously captured, sun-kissed California setting. It is a film carried not by a need to promote the tolerance and understanding most of us already practise, but a more simple desire to tell a charming, universal story about forgiveness, patience and doing what is right for those you love.


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