Introducing the world premiere of Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids are All Right,” Sundance’s John Cooper joked that if anything bad were to happen during the screening, “there would go the independent film industry.” His reference came from the fact that reps from essentially every distributor were in attendance, anticipating the last minute entry to the fest and one of its hottest acquisition titles. Cholodenko admitted she had raced to get it finished in time, but there was absolutely no evidence of hastiness on screen. The audience laughed, even cheered (at a soon-to-be-classic scene in which “Kids” co-stars Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo sing a duet of Joni Mitchell) en route to a rapturous round of post-screening applause.
The film details a tempestuous summer in the lives of Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), a couple anticipating their daughter Joni’s move to college. Joni (played by Mia Wasikowska, who between this and “Alice in Wonderland” should likely become 2010’s major breakthrough actress) has just turned 18, and her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) wants her to make use of her newfound status as a legal adult to seek out the sperm donor to which both of them were born from. Enter Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who immediately hits it off with his newfound biological children and in turn begins to send the family into quite the emotional tailspin.
The performances are across the board fantastic, and it would not be a surprise if a year from now Bening, Moore and Ruffalo all find themselves in contention for Oscar nominations. Though it’s actually Cholodenko’s and co-writer Stuart Blumberg’s script that is “Kids”‘s strongest asset. Its power lies in how consistently funny and deceptively lighthearted it feels. But in the end, the affecting nature of the film creeps up on you. The film’s passionate final scenes leave you with the immediate realization that there is much more at play here than simply a sharp romantic comedy.
Set in California, Nic and Jules occasionally reference each other as married, but beyond that the film refrains from being overtly political. Their relationship is presented as any other, and their children are delightfully unfazed by their parents’ sexuality. And it’s through this subtlety that Cholodenko actually gives us an incredibly profound entry into the canon of gay-themed film. Such authentic examinations of a same-sex family don’t come around too often, and “The Kids Are All Right” has mainstream accessibility to boot. It’s this accessibility (much more present than in Cholodenko’s previous efforts — 1998’s “High Art” and 2002’s “Laurel Canyon”) that should allow for the film to have no trouble finding a distributor. Whispers of a major deal came immediately after the credits rolled, and could very well go down today. But wherever “Kids” ends up, audiences should prepare for something truly special: One of the most endearing and genuine cinematic portraits of a contemporary American family, and one that just so happens to be reared by a same-sex couple.
Associate Editor Peter Knegt is part of the indieWIRE team covering the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. More on his blog.
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