Family matters: We can relate
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, July 16, 2010
"The Kids Are All Right" arrives as the perfect midsummer movie, a comedy about a flawed-but-functional family that, like "Toy Story 3," captures the drama of growth and separation in all its exhilaration and heartache. Anyone who has burst into tears while choosing a dorm room rug for a departing teenager will recognize the emotional zings and arrows that fly through a story that can turn on a dime between painful and funny. But just about everyone who has been a parent, child or partner will find resonance in its bittersweet depiction of the joys and trials of lifelong intimacy.
Eighteen-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and her little brother, Laser (Josh Hutcherson), are pretty typical teens growing up in Southern California today: They're good kids, even if they roll their eyes at their overprotective mother. Actually, make that mothers: Joni and Laser have two moms, one a briskly competent doctor named Nic (Annette Bening), the other a floaty dreamer named Jules (Julianne Moore).
Jules and Nic are like many 21st-century parents: enlightened, open, prone to hovering ("You're windshield-wiping again, Mom," says one of the kids). They've clearly formed a close, healthy family, which makes it all the more disruptive when Laser, curious about the anonymous donor whose sperm helped create him and his sister, persuades Joni to find their biological father.
Just another bio-dad melodrama, you say? Not when the man in question is played by Mark Ruffalo, who draws on every ounce of his considerable sex appeal to play Paul, a mellow, somewhat feckless restaurateur who can seduce just about everything he sets his sights on, whether it's a gorgeous waitress or a field full of fresh organic produce. A bedroom-eyed underachiever, Paul's the last guy anyone would consider a threat, but when Joni and Laser undertake to find out about him, his presence shakes the family in ways no one could have expected.
Written by Lisa Cholodenko ("High Art," "Laurel Canyon") and Stuart Blumberg, and directed by Cholodenko, "The Kids Are All Right" unfolds with a loping, loose-limbed ease that belies its sometimes forced setups. It's a movie of brief, almost furtive pleasures meant to be comprehended at dog-whistle frequencies, like Jules's Elvis Costello and Antone's T-shirts, or the expression on Nic's face when she says the name of a friend of Laser's the moms disapprove of.
Cholodenko skillfully mines the complications of the story not for gags or punch lines, but for moments of wry, observational humor (there's a hilarious sequence in which Jules expounds on lesbian porn being "inauthentic"). The performances are consistently terrific, although between "The Women," the recent "Mother and Child" and now this, Bening is in danger of being eternally typecast as the uptight, brittle control freak. Within an ensemble of consummate pros, Wasikowska shines as a young woman grappling with the push-and-pull of a lovingly enmeshed family and forging her own fragile identity.
As Nic and Jules weather the tiny earthquakes of two teenagers growing up (with one Peter Pan along for the ride), "The Kids Are All Right" becomes an amusing, occasionally piercing, but ultimately forgiving portrait that should strike a warm, familiar chord with everyone who has left home or is facing a rapidly emptying nest. Yes, this ruefully funny movie is about a gay family, but mostly families, as laboratories of that elusive formula known as Loving While Letting Go. As Tolstoy said, the happy ones are all alike, and as "The Kids Are All Right" shows, even the happiest ones take work.
Contains strong sexual content, nudity, profanity and teen drug and alcohol use.