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The Kids Are All Right (2010) ***1/2

January 4, 2011


written by: Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg

 produced by: Gary Gilbert, Jordan Horowitz, Celine Rattray, Daniela Taplin Lundberg & Philippe Hellmann

directed by: Lisa Cholondenko
rated R (for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some teen drug and alcohol use)
104 min.
U.S. release date: July 9, 2010
DVD & Bluray release date: November 16, 2010
Writer/director Lisa Cholondenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” is a smart film that provides an honest, humorous, and real portrayal of a modern family. You won’t find any other recent film that shows the complacency and insecurities that can develop over time in a relationship as well as the challenges of raising teens, in a way that doesn’t play for laughs or condescends. It’s also unique in that it touches on the identity crisis that can hit anyone at any age.  Who am I? Where am I from? Am I loved? The result is a welcome look at the dysfunction and function of the type of family we seldom see on the big screen.
The story focuses on a couple, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) living in Southern California, who find the world they’ve worked so hard for has abruptly come undone. Their two teenaged kids, eighteen year-old, Joni (Mia Wasikowska, “Alice in Wonderland”), daughter of Nic, and fifteen year-old, Laser (Josh Hutcherson, “Journey to the Center of the Earth”), son of Jules, have decided to look up their father. That search connects them to Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a local laid-back charmer who runs a nearby organic farm and restaurant. Back in the early 90’s, Paul donated to a sperm bank (if you’re wondering what he donated than just stop reading) for some extra cash , and carried on with his life. Unbeknownst to Paul, his deposit contributed to the creation of some wonderful people and not only is he floored when he learns he is a father, but he is equally as surprised at how effortlessly he takes to the role.
Needless to say this does not go over well with Nic, a successful doctor who works best when everything is under control. She begins to notice everyone in her family slowly giving in to Paul’s irresistable charisma.  What she thought was just going to be a meet and greet with their biological father, has now become something she had never imagined. While she never intended to discourage a relationship with Paul, she does feel threatened by someone who everyone else thinks is harmless. This feeling only increases as Joni becomes smitten with him, despite Laser’s skepticism, and Nic becomes even more concerned when Jules, a budding landscape artist, spends more time with Paul, who hires her to redesign his garden.
His introduction shakes everyone involved out of their routine and it becomes the most intoxicating aspect of “The Kids Are All Right”. Each character would’ve eventually seen who they really are, but Paul’s unexpected presence forces all of them to face themselves. The best part: none of it feels contrived, pretentious, or forced. 
With a lesbian couple and a sperm donor, this is a film that could’ve been rife with bad puns, irresponsible stereotypes, and lowbrow humor. Instead, any couple or any person who’s ever been in a long-standing relationship can relate to Nic and Jules. Just the same, any person who’s ever drifted along and lived solely for his/her own pleasure, can relate to Paul. And everyone has been a confused teenager at one time. Put them all together and they become people you know. People like you and me.
We have Cholodenko (who also directed “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon”), who co-wrote the film with Stuart Blumberg (“The Girl Next Door”), to thank for treating these characters like real people. They may be overly dramatic at times and in other moments they may experience raw pain as they encounter hurtful realizations, but that’s life. How refreshing to see a complex and rich script brought to the screen in an endearing, humorous, and clever way. 
Cholodenko deftly handles all the exterior elements that circle these characters and prevents them from becoming clichés, allowing these actors to effortlessly inhabit their roles. The script never once dips into exposition or spells it all out for us. Instead, we see emotion conveyed that carries the story.  All of this takes place without any type of political or moral message being thrown down in front of us. We are left to ourselves to deal with any of our own preconceived notions of gay parenting or whatnot.
Bening, Moore, and Ruffalo, have all turned in some great work in the past, but it’s great to see them transform into such lived-in characters here. Sure, some of the same mannerisms are present in Moore and Ruffalo, but they undeniably hit all the right beats. Both are loose and carefree, she the scatterbrained indulgent one and he, eager to be involved in this family, yet unaware what a wedge he has become. Neither are easy to process. Bening truly scores here though, in many ways. Not only does she provide the needed chemistry to Moore as a couple, but she has several subtle and nuanced expressions and moments that give away just enough character reveals. Watch her vulnerability when they are gathered together for dinner. At first her insecurities are hidden by an overindulgence of wine, then she opens herself up to Paul, connecting to music tastes they share, and then sweetly singing Joni Mitchell for all. The dinner ends with a sobriety that only hits Nic, as she slowly feels ostracized from everyone else. Moore and Ruffalo may have a more outgoing role, but Bening winds up being the one to watch. It’s an award-worthy performance for Bening, that could send her home with a golden boy.
The kids in “Kids” are more than all right. They don’t have the juicier roles that the other three do, but their roles are necessary to ground those three and serve as a reflection for the adults to come to terms with themselves. Neither Wasikowski or Hutcherson (who would’ve made a great Peter Parker, oh well) deliver the typical sarcastic or whiny teen roles we so often see in these family dramas. Maybe they are different because of their modern family and see life in a way that no other kid their age does. Regardless, I enjoyed seeing not only their sibling relationship, but also how each of them warm up to their donor dad.
“The Kids Are All Right” is worthy of its somewhat overrated praise. That may seem contradictory but it just so happens to be one of the few honest and real dramadies out there that hits all the right notes. With that in mind, it’s no surprise to learn that much of the material is drawn from Cholodenko’s own life. Bringing such tender and hilarious moments to the big screen in a natural way for all to see and reflect on is a great achievement. She brings us characters who fail, struggle and strive to be loved, in an environment filled with situations and feelings that we can all relate to.


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