Nancy Meyers of “It‘s Complicated” and “The Holiday” fame wrote about lesbians — and actually had talent — she might have made “The Kids Are All Right.” Like Meyers, filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko crafts a movie actually made with adults in mind as an audience (and features some gorgeous, glossy-worthy house porn), but Cholodenko doesn’t rely on unlikely, Ephron-aping meet-cutes and groan-worthy dialogue. Instead, “The Kids Are All Right” feels bracingly authentic — and entirely entertaining — in its picture of a middle-aged marriage whose participants just happen to be two women.
Those worried they’re getting a message movie in the midst of an ongoing national debate about gay marriage probably aren’t the intended audience for the film, but “The Kids Are All Right” (even in its title) communicates its ideals with a subtlety and persuasiveness no protest sign can capture. The fact that the couple at its center is two women who can’t even legally marry in their home state of California doesn’t come up. Instead, the film centers on the struggles of parenting and keeping a relationship viable as the decades pass.
Annette Bening is perfectly bristly as Nic, Mom #1, who establishes her type-A, rule-abiding character quickly, insisting that her daughter, Joni (Mia Wasikowska, “Alice in Wonderland“) send out her graduation gift thank-you notes ASAP. More laid back is Mom #2, Julianne Moore‘s Jules, the meandering hippie of the pair who is trying her hand at landscape design after attempts at other careers. She named her son Laser (Josh Hutcherson, “Journey to the Center of the Earth“) because, well, why not?
Other than a normal bit of teenage angst, Nic, Jules, and their children are the perfect picture of a happy family, but Laser is curious about the sperm donor father he shares with Joni. Enter Paul (Mark Ruffalo), whose quick bonding with Joni worries the moms and they insist on a meeting with their children’s biological father. Soon, the college-bound, normally well-behaved Joni is talking back, and Nic grows edgy at Paul’s increasing role in her family’s life. Nic gets to play bad cop, while the free-spirited Jules finds camaraderie in the similarly nonconformist Paul.
This is Cholodenko’s first script collaboration after solo work on “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon,” and the comic influence of her co-writer, Stuart Blumberg (“Keeping the Faith,” “The Girl Next Door“) is readily apparent. There’s a sense of fun here that indie viewers haven’t seen before in her work, though she definitely keeps the art factor intact. The script is smart, playing with dialogue and character in ways that are so utterly true to life that it feels almost improvised at times. The characters are flawed in fascinating, natural ways and it’s impossible to look away.
Each actor seems perfectly cast. Cholodenko and Blumberg wrote Jules with Moore in mind, and she’s a perfect fit. Jules’ flightiness and impetuousness are finely captured, and it’s an excellent contrast to the perfectionist tendencies of Bening’s Nic. The actresses have an enviable chemistry and rapport, and their interactions with each other and their on-screen children feel real.
Both Wasikowska and Hutcherson are solid, but the former deserves special attention. She’s given the more difficult part of the two, and she easily steps into a role that has her playing the myriad emotions an 18-year-old feels as she’s pulled between childhood and adulthood. She gets to pout and shout, but there are also moments of maturity that the audience absolutely buys (she emotes with such quivering subtlety at times that its shockingly good and the actress further enforces herself as one to watch and very likely a future, Academy-Award winner).
Ruffalo’s Paul feels like an evolution from his much-praised role in “You Can Count on Me,” and he’s easy to like, even when his character is doing deplorable things. In fact, one of the things that’s most likable about the film as a whole is its ability to endear people doing unlikable things to its audience without ever lessening the impact or consequences of their behavior.
Director of photography Igor Jadue-Lillo shoots the sunny SoCal locales with plenty of natural, warm light, and the film takes on the look of a ’70s character-driven comedy. Carter Burwell’s hip but earthy score works well with both the setting and the soundtrack from bands such as Deerhoof, MGMT, Uh Huh Her, and Vampire Weekend, and songs from the always essential David Bowie pepper tracks from these newer artists.
“The Kids Are All Right” has the kind of word-of-mouth potential to be the kind of breakout hit that Focus Features is constantly on the hunt for. Cholodenko’s film ably strides the line between art and commerce, making a solid film that’s worthy of praise but never feels like an effort for either the audience or its cast and crew. [A]