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The Kids Are All Right is a movie about a lesbian couple and their two children. While certainly still a hot-button topic in America, this is hardly the first time that gay characters have played a prominent role in a film. In fact, gay characters have found their own little niche in romantic comedies, playing the flamboyant pal to the female lead, while movies like Brokeback Mountain have made homosexuality an integral part of the story. So what makes Lisa Cholodenko’s film different? The movie isn’t actually about these women being gay.
Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play Nic and Jules, a married lesbian couple living in the California suburbs raising their 18-year-old daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and their 15-year-old son Laser (Josh Hutcherson). With his sister about to head off to college and being too young to access the information himself, Laser convinces his sister to call the sperm bank where their moms were artificially inseminated to find out who their donor was. Without their mothers’ consent, the siblings meet up with Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a single-and-loving-it restaurant owner who is more than happy to share his life with newly discovered offspring. Word soon gets back to the moms about this meet-up and the five decide to get together, but the more Paul gets involved with the family’s life, the more problems begin to surface that show that they are not the well-knit bunch they appear to be.
It should only take a quick glance at the cast list to realize that this film is meant to stand on its performances, and does it ever. Both Bening and Moore put in fantastic work, hitting every single comedic and dramatic note as parents whose different parenting approaches have resulted in two very different children. But while the family unit never misses a step, it’s Ruffalo’s performance as the swinging bachelor that ties everything together. While it’s hard to imagine any man in his position acting the way he does (the character even admits to thinking that the sperm bank would never use his “stuff”), the actor sells it with aplomb, seeming genuinely interested in learning everything about Joni and Laser. Paul is meant to be a chaotic and destructive figure, breaking up what appears to be the perfect California-suburban family. But it’s simply impossible to root against so affable a man.
As a director, Cholodenko has never been shy about exploring human sexuality, be it in the form of Frances McDormand’s character in the film Laurel Canyon, who is dating a boy 15 years her junior, or the lesbian relationship between Radha Mitchell and Ally Sheedy in High Art. But where this film distances itself from those previous efforts is in the lack of emphasis placed on the central character’s sexual preference. At only one point in the film does the nature of Jules and Nic’s relationship seem awkward or different, when Joni first talks to Paul, but it’s nothing more than a two line exchange highlighted with a joke (“I love lesbians!”). The film doesn’t have a political stance or take a side on the notorious Proposition 8; it simply treats the two leads as exactly what they are – human and in a loving relationship fraught with problems every couple faces in one way or another.
Embracing awkward moments for comedic effect and not afraid to let the audience feel the characters’ pain with during moments of heavy drama, The Kids Are All Right is a film about real people. While the ending feels a little rushed and not every character arc is entirely closed (the men suffer worst), there are very few marks that the film fails to hit. It’s almost forgivable that The Who are left off the soundtrack entirely. Almost.