REVIEW: Brilliant Kids Are All Right Brims with Grace, Smarts and Laughs

Movieline Score:

kidsareallright_rev_2-1.jpgLisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right is such a low-key feat of filmmaking that the scope of its offhanded generosity -- toward its characters, its story, its actors and its audience -- may not hit you until days after you've seen it. The movie finds its greatness in the margins, in the way one character might fumble through a particularly astute yet painful observation, or the way another muses aloud about how much a sperm bank paid him for the very stuff of human life. This is a comedy about what might be considered an alternative family, if only its members didn't suffer so acutely from the same doubts, temptations, insecurities and longings that people in nearly all families do. The Kids Are All Right is more universal than it is alternative, except in one sense: There's nothing else on the contemporary movie landscape like it.

Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play Nic and Jules, a long-committed couple with two teenage children. Joni (Mia Wasikowska) is a National Merit Scholar about to head off to college; her younger brother, Laser (Josh Hutcherson), is a kid who's perhaps just on the cusp of being aimless (his mothers both worry that he may be hanging out with the wrong crowd), though all he's really going through is the usual confused-teenager stuff. And in some ways, as even his name subtly implies, he's the most attuned and focused of everyone in this seemingly loose, laid-back West Coast family: At his urging, Joni -- who's over 18, as he is not -- tracks down the sperm donor who supplied half the raw goods of their genetic makeup. That guy turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a somewhat zonked-out restaurant owner who agrees to meet his two offspring as readily, and as unthinkingly, as someone might make the choice between wearing sneakers or flip-flops on a given day. When he learns that the people who put his mother lode of genetic code to use are two women, he spends a befuddled third of a second processing the information before blurting out, "Right on! I love lesbians."

Joni and Laser, who at first keep their detective work a secret from the people they call "the moms," take some tentative first steps toward getting to know Paul, though Laser is the more cautious of the two. When Nic and Jules find out what the kids have been up to, they reluctantly agree to meet Paul, who gradually becomes more entangled in their lives. That's as much a surprise to Paul as it is to anyone: This is a guy who's programmed to avoid entanglements, as we see in the way he cruelly casts aside a sometime girlfriend (Yaya DaCosta) who's also a hostess at his restaurant. But as he gets to know his kids better, he begins flirting with fatherhood -- and although that's not the same as committing to it, the deepest commitments, as many of us know, often begin with flirtation.

The Kids Are All Right is certainly topical in light of the national gay-marriage debate. But this isn't a picture that's out to make points or delineate political issues; if anything, it treats gay marriage as the no-brainer issue it is. This is, to put it simply, a very funny movie about people who are confused at best and in pain at worst, and Cholodenko's capacity to laugh with her characters, as well as to feel deeply for them, is what makes it remarkable. Cholodenko has the Paul Mazursky touch, the casual, affectionate luster he brought to bear in pictures like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Next Stop, Greenwich Village, among others. Like him, she allows moments to take shape between characters, instead of trying to force those moments into any kind of thematic framework. And she allows herself, and us, to laugh at those characters just a little when they lapse into touchy-feely psychobabble.

But she also lets us see the strata of feeling that lie beneath that stream of words. Moore's character, the more freewheeling spirit in this couple, could happily talk for hours about her own and everyone else's feelings; Bening's Nic, a no-nonsense doctor, pushes back with perhaps too much common sense. After Moore suggests that Nic might ride Joni a bit less about getting her graduation-gift thank-you notes out on time, Nic shoots back, "If it were up to you, our kids wouldn't bother to write thank-you notes -- they'd just send out good vibes."

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  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    Gay marriage has certainly become a no-brainer (for liberals, that is), but the reason for this isn't worth our applause. Basically, as with Darwin's theory of natural selection, agreeing with gay marriage isn't so much a conclusion you come to as it is a prerequisite for membership into a club, for being in any way relevant (again, amongst liberals). Being liberal right now isn't so much about a style / spirit of thinking -- being open, tolerant, ranging, but very critical -- but in your holding true to a firm, absolutely delineated point of view. Not thought, not brain, but accoutrement and right-of-way -- a blow horn to announce your allegiance, a sword to smite your foes. Gay marriage isn't something to be thought about, not so much because it EVIDENTLY IS worthy, but because even in your considering it, your evaluating it, you've shown you're not one of the makeup to instinctively JUST KNOW its rightness, to have always been aware of the obvious, and therefore your (what in truth your "evaluating" really is) all-too-easily-managed straying from the path, your impurity, your actually quite horrifying susceptibility to being (nothing but) a bigot.
    So we as liberals haven't so much evolved, or even won -- in fact we've devolved, or lost, in embracing victory, and shielding from ourselves our knowledge that it is backed mostly through gifts (the more fit sense [dopamine rush] you instantly feel once you adopt the liberal paradigm), and by punishment -- the forgottenness that is yours to know, once you've been excommunicated. Evolution, natural selection, used to be the kind of thing liberals considered but were willing, if it didn't strike them as measuring up, to actually (near) dismiss -- witness in the 60s / 70s the lefty, the Gaian, the gay-marriage-supporting William Irwin Thompson's conclusion that the theory was well lacking -- and so too were once gay relationships / orientations considered, explored -- again, by liberals -- and TRULY sympathetically, as originating out of the likes of unconscious self-protection -- something never just to be celebrated or accepted -- without some substantial "caveat," at least -- that is.
    I think it was an active strain of feminist thought once to consider lesbianism as owing to an unconscious desire to escape disapproval, reprisal, in "agreeing" to forego men and instead livelong bond to women, and thereby never truly leave mother (many Chodorow quotes are right now coming to mind) -- if it wasn't, what has me guess this is that for certain feminists used to explore and blast the psychological damage their mothers visited on them as much or more -- it sometimes seemed -- than they did that owing to men -- and I know for certain that gay men once actively engaged the possibility that their "attachment" to men was born PRIMARILY, ESSENTIALLY out of a desire to permanently disengage themselves from (early-known incestuous handling from) their mothers. This today is not psychology, though, but psychobabble (a category now so corrupt but powerful I suspect it could entomb Freud himself) -- which in this case, doesn't necessarily make you a republican, but certainly puts you in the company of the mad, lost, and laughable.
    So this film isn't about lesbians (which tells us nothing, really), but, appropriately, about particular, specific, REAL parents, and their relationships with their (equally well considered and rightly begotten) kids. And their kids' troubles are not particular to their having lesbian parents, but simply and conclusively in their being of a certain age, to their being children of parents. We're no longer doing the cruel in using characters, people, for the purposes of making / advancing an argument; we -- or the most beautifully evolved amongst us -- are finally now executing what we just weren't up to managing from the beginning: we believe most in THEM, not in our own whatever crusades, and are letting their REALNESS determine, take full charge of, all that unfolds. Finally, out of this kind of appropriateness and generosity, our journey can begin.
    This is the only liberal way to get at this film. My guess is, though, that if it doesn't get at how the partners' lesbianism is affecting their children, if it doesn't empower children who grew up with lesbian mothers, or who were mostly raised by women, who watch the film, to understand / intuit that their lack of a father -- or more importantly -- that their being raised by all mom(s) is something they have every right to explore as being actually detrimental to them, as affecting them adversely, and not just for certain of but ho-hum consequence, then the film is actually still focussed on pleasing / soothing liberal parents, their prejudices and preferences, at the expense of kids: it's still sham -- some of it, at least; not what it gives off every odor of appearing to be.
    I was raised by a single, very liberal, mother. I didn't have two moms, but knew ALL mom. I've seen and known boys who were raised by two -- again, very liberal -- moms. Because we all had the good fortune of being raised by mothers who were predisposed to be progressive, to have enough in themselves to well care about others, to be kind and loving and support social / political movements that enfranchised their good leanings, we were far better off than the good majority of those raised by long-together, mother-father parents. But also, because we were raised by mothers immature enough, fearful and broken enough, to never leave their, or were ultimately drawn to retreat back into, being in profound sense still owned by their own mothers, we've known considerable childhood / teenage troubles --damage, quite frankly -- owing to their lesbianism, to their own psychological (and sad) "retreat" and its consequent repercussions, and not just so innocuously to our just having known every kid's experience of teenage "sturm und drang."
    I have heard your praise / account of how love for people becomes manifest in this film, and bet when I see the film I'll agree with most of it, but I have a suspicion this film helps further bury people too. Will I mostly see what follows from the open door, or sense the masterful, artful closing of one? I look forward to finding out.

  • Heather says:

    What a beautifully-written review.

  • richie-rich says:

    gorgeous review from Stephanie, and an interesting response from Patrick.
    I am gay, and i suspect i'll love this movie...since Bening & Moore are favorites, and SZ is the best critic writing today. Patrick, I think you think too much, and i think you think very well. I wish you well with all my heart.

  • Tamar says:

    Dude. This is a comments section on a movie review. If you want to publish a critical theory essay on liberalism, gay marriage, gay parenting, and feminism, I suggest you do so in a more appropriate venue.

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    Thanks, Richie-Rich. To you as well.

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  • REVIEW: Brilliant Kids Are All Right Brims with Grace, Smarts and Laughs - Movieline

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