Witty, urbane and thoroughly entertaining, "The Kids Are All Right" is an ode to the virtues of family, in this case a surprisingly conventional one even with its two moms, two kids and one sperm donor. Whatever your politics, between peerless performances, lyrical direction and an adventurous script, this is the sort of pleasingly grown-up fare all too rare in the mainstream daze of this very dry summer.
Before delving into the layered perfection of Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, let's start by getting past any hesitations or reservations about the lesbian household premise on which "The Kids Are All Right" is based. The issue of gay marriage is not what's on the table here. At its heart, this is a movie about how families, whatever their composition, stay together, love each other through difficult times, and weather the particularly storm-tossed seas that come when the kids hit their teenage years. (Why the 2s are considered terrible instead of the teens, I'll never understand).
Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg have put the politics aside for now and created an easy interplay of comedy and drama spawned by typical family pressures — the thank you notes that haven't been sent, the sketchy best friend the parents don't approve of, the house rules made to be broken. It helps that the characters are eminently relatable at the same time intriguingly iconoclastic, no small feat. For those who are wondering, there is some sheet tangling, sweaty sex, but it's mostly of the hetero variety courtesy of the very appealing Ruffalo.
"All right" doesn't begin to describe it. "The Kids Are All Right" is wonderful. Here is a film that respects and enjoys all of its characters, the give-and-take and recklessness and wisdom of any functioning family unit, conventional or un-. The independently financed $5 million indie, picked up for distribution by Focus Features, is the easiest movie to love I've seen all year.
In writer-director Lisa Cholodenko's previous theatrical releases, the New York-set "High Art" and the Los Angeles-set " Laurel Canyon," the filmmaker proved adept at examining relationships from close quarters. She's especially shrewd at delineating how a vulnerable soul can be pulled into undiscovered country, perilous and exciting. Every action or transgression comes with a price, however, and that's why Cholodenko is so good; she sees the reasons behind everyone's behavior. Her films are well-made in a straightfoward, humanistic vein, yet emotionally expansive and open-ended, like all good fiction.
Lisa Cholodenko's wonderful "The Kids Are All Right" is about many things, but at its heart it's about a girl who's ready to fly away from her family's cozy L.A. nest. Eighteen-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska, of "Alice in Wonderland"), her pale face framed by sheets of hair that you want to brush away, loves her two moms, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), but she's easily irritated by them. A recent high-school graduate, she's beginning to assert her independence, and does so in an unusual way: At the urging of her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson), she contacts Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the biological father/sperm donor whom the two kids have never met.
And that's the beauty of Cholodenko's film: It's not about Mia coming to terms with her gay parents, but with her straight nonparent. Her family is, refreshingly, presented with utter casualness — they are, in nearly all respects, just like any other family, and probably happier than most. Joni's irked that she's being urged to write thank-you notes; Laser hangs out with friends who might be a bad influence; Nic, a stressed-out physician, is self-medicating a little heavily with red wine; Jules, the floaty stay-at-home parent, worries about what she'll do as the kids leave the fold. But all clearly adore each other, despite their ups and downs; happy families, as Tolstoy told us long ago, are all alike.