Universal // 2010 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 16th, 2010
Nic and Jules had the perfect family...until they met the man who made it all possible.
"Right on, yeah."
Nic (Annette Bening, American Beauty) and Jules (Julianne Moore, The Big Lebowski) are an ordinary couple living in California. They have two children: an 18-year-old daughter named Joni (Mia Wasikowska, Alice in Wonderland) and a 15-year-old son named Laser (Josh Hutcherson, Journey to the Center of the Earth). Nic is the successful professional, providing for the family with her job as a doctor. Jules is mostly a stay-at-home mom, though she's tried her hand at a variety of jobs over the years. Recently, she bought a truck for her gardening business. Jules doesn't have any clients yet, but hey, now she has a truck.
Each of the women gave birth to one of the children after being artificially inseminated by the same anonymous sperm donor. Now that Joni's turned 18, she has the legal right to attempt to contact her biological father. Joni has no interest in this, but agrees to make the call after Laser pleads with her. Soon, the charming and friendly Paul (Mark Ruffalo, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) cheerfully enters the lives of his biological children and their mothers. His presence triggers a series of unexpected events, causing everyone involved to re-examine their lives and relationships.
The characters in Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right are so well-defined from the beginning that we feel we know them within minutes. Even so, they all have surprises hiding underneath the surface, some of which are buried so deep they aren't even aware of them. The film is accurately described as a comedy, but the laughs don't come from cheap gags or artificial-sounding zingers. The laughter in the film comes from the recognition of familiar and occasionally embarrassing elements from our own lives, and it often comes with a pinch of regret or melancholy. This is a good story superbly told, as sequences that could easily have slipped into mediocrity remain resonant due to Cholodenko's pitch-perfect tone and fair-minded direction.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of the film is how much the it communicates about these characters indirectly. There's very little in the way of awkward expositionary dialogue to explain who these people are and what their situation is; the screenplay finds ways to convey this information in an entirely organic manner. The relationship between Nic and Jules feels so lived-in; something many other films fail to capture in their portraits of relationships. They have no qualms about openly communicating with each other, but they've also formed the kind of shorthand that can be found in most long-term relationships. Conveying deep familiarity takes more than a warm "welcome home" kiss after a long workday, which is something The Kids Are All Right realizes.
Though the film won near-universal acclaim, it's nonetheless been reduced to "that lesbian movie" in many circles. Yes, the film centers on a lesbian couple, but the film's intentions are larger than to simply declare, "Hey look, lesbians can raise kids, too!" The film is a nuanced study of human relationships, and it explores the complications that arise in the lives of characters of different genders and sexual preferences when a new element (Paul) enters the picture. The kids are both excited and a little hesitant. Nic feels a bit threatened. Will her kids regard Paul as a parental figure despite the fact that she and Jules are the ones who did all the hard work? Jules is intrigued, and then too intrigued -- she accepts a job working on Paul's garden, then unexpectedly begins conducting a passionate affair with him. No, really.
The film has come under some criticism for that last item, as some feel the film is implying (perhaps unintentionally) that lesbians are secretly straight women who just haven't met the right guy (a theory supposedly further supported by the fact that Nic & Jules watch porn featuring gay men as a form of sexual stimulation). However, such attacks are unwarranted. Cholodenko's previous films have addressed the mysterious fluidity of human sexuality (a straight woman enters into a lesbian affair in High Art, while Laurel Canyon offers a scene in which a straight woman gets involved a threesome with her fiance's mother and the mother's boyfriend), and The Kids Are All Right does the same thing to compelling effect. It's the thrill of something foreign that appeals to Jules; not a secret desire for a heterosexual relationship. It's also the thrill of something foreign that excites the kids about the possibility of having a new parental figure, and it's the terror of something foreign that makes Nic so very nervous about losing the affection of her children.
The performances are superb across the board. As I mentioned earlier, Bening and Moore are able to generate such tremendous warmth and chemistry; we buy their relationship quickly and everything else just falls into place. Moore in particular hits some different notes. She finds such splendidly subtle comedy in the character's quietly loopy behavior; never going so far as to make fun of Jules' quirks but still playing them for low-key laughs. Ruffalo's performance is also quite fascinating, as the actor initially comes across as the usual Mark Ruffalo character (friendly, easy-going, warm, a little sad) and then slowly reveals the troublesome lack of character behind the non-confrontational persona. Finally, Hutcherson and Wasikowska continue to demonstrate why they're two of the most promising young actors working today; never missing a beat in their key roles.
The DVD transfer is quite good, if a bit on the grainy side at times. The lush imagery of upper-class suburbia is nicely-captured, and blacks are satisfactorily deep. The sound is solid and unsurprisingly dialogue-driven. Nothing's going to give your speakers any sort of workout, but it's clean and clear. The only substantial extra is a feature-length commentary with Cholodenko; the featurettes are nearly too short to bother with: "The Journey to Becoming a Family" (4 minutes), "The Making of The Kids Are All Right" (3 minutes) and "The Writer's Process" (2 minutes).
Cholodenko's soundtrack selection is nothing short of spot-on (Jules and Nic are listening to Leon Russell early on; Paul is listening to early, grungy David Bowie), but the song snippets are often mercilessly short. The manner in which the music is edited seems a bit harsh; I wish she could have given it a bit more room to breathe.
There are some emotionally raw moments in The Kids Are All Right, but the film is ultimately a touching and entertaining one. The writing is truthful and the performances are masterful; this one easily earns a recommendation.
Review content copyright © 2010 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R