Lisa Cholondenko's "The Kids are All Right" succeeds at normalizing a once-progressive scenario. The story of a married lesbian couple and the chummy sperm donor responsible for their family produces a sitcom-ready plot that drifts to its natural finish. As the two moms, Julianne Moore and Annette Bening play off their respective expressive abilities, generating a chemistry that provides the emotional backbone of the movie.
[Editor’s Note: Eric Kohn’s review of “The Kids are All Right” was first published in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Focus Features will open the film Friday July 9.]
The couple's alienated teens, competently portrayed by Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska, deliver the sort of confused adolescent angst easily identifiable as the "Freaks and Geeks" variety, while Ruffalo amusingly dons his usual modus operandi as a likable shlub. With these archetypes in place - the couple, the kids, the interloper - "All Right" has enough narrative ingredients for a couple of movies, or maybe a somewhat forward-leaning TV show. As a single package, it feels agreeably familiar.
Cholondenko's script, co-written with Stuart Blumberg, glides along with a mixture of suburban drama and light comedic elements sprinkled throughout. Within minutes of the opening credits, college-bound Joni (Wasikowska) has contacted Paul (Ruffalo) and arranged to meet him with her brother, Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Paul, a fun-loving restaurant owner and 50-year-old swinger, has an agreeable presence that provides his indirect children with a newfound parental figure.
To their concerned mothers, however, Paul arrives equipped with multiple red flags - all of which come to fruition during the rest of the movie. The closest cinematic comparison might be "Made in America," in which Whoopi Goldberg's character discovers that she received a white man's seed, but "All Right" throws some additional sexual misdirection into the ring. When Ruffalo shows up, things are definitely not alright.
Although at times predictable, the movie never loses its forward momentum, mainly due to its precise focus on familial stability. There's never any doubt, when one of the parents develops a romantic attraction to Paul, that sparks will fly - the question is simply how many and for how long. While Ruffalo sports a self-satisfied grin and blows around town on his motorcyle, he's basically there for a sideshow. The real intelligence of "All Right" lies with the intelligently crafted interactions between Moore and Bening, perhaps the only lesbian parents given such extensive screen time in film history. As they oscillate from fighting to reconciliation and back again, their dialogue retains an ongoing authenticity. "Sometimes," Moore says, explaining one squabble, "you're together so long you start to see weird projections of your own junk."
"All Right" may project the same junk that countless other suburban dramedies have dealt with in the past, which makes its success out of the Sundance Film Festival both a well-deserved honor and the same kind of overhype that heaps onto a solid example of conventional onscreen storytelling each year. But something ought to be said for the fate of Ruffalo's character, whom the script ultimately abandons in favor of the initial family dynamic. Leaving the straight dude out to dry, Cholondenko creates the illusion of a conventional story when in fact blatant progressiveness still wins the day. To quote "Seinfeld": "Not that there's anything wrong with that."