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