'The Kids Are All Right' generates laughs, uncertainty

The movie almost wasn't ready for the Sundance Film Festival -- an addition so late its place was held in the schedule as "Surprise Premiere 2." But everyone in town knew the last-minute movie was filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko's "The Kids Are All Right," and as soon as the film finished playing in a packed screening Monday night, the Annette Bening-Julianne Moore movie became the talk of the town.

Like some of the most popular Sundance movies, "The Kids Are All Right" takes a conventional movie genre -- in this case, the domestic comedy -- and piles on independent film attitude and sharp dialogue, along with some frank sexuality.

Several prominent distributors of specialized film -- headed by Focus Features and Summit Entertainment -- spent much of Tuesday negotiating for the film's distribution rights, while others wondered if the film's sex scenes -- some lesbian, some gay, some straight, all of them R-rated -- might limit its ticket sales.

Cholodenko is no stranger to Sundance -- two of her last movies, 1998's "High Art" and 2002's "Laurel Canyon," played at the festival -- but "The Kids Are All Right" is hardly as thematically challenging as her previous work, which explains why buyers and audiences are embracing it.

Cholodenko "is just so good with the performances," festival director John Cooper said Tuesday. "She makes characters that are flawed and interesting, and she's not afraid of emotion."

In the film, Bening (a doctor named Nic) and Moore (an aspiring landscape designer named Jules) play a Los Angeles couple whose long relationship looks a bit more solid than it really is. Their oldest daughter, Joni ("Alice in Wonderland's" Mia Wasikowska), is about to leave for college, her brother, Laser ("Cirque du Freaks' " Josh Hutcherson), wants her to find out who donated the sperm that brought them into the world.

That man turns out to be organic farmer/restaurateur Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who promptly becomes an unexpectedly large presence in the lives not only of the children but also of their mothers. His arrival strains the bond between Nic and Jules, and alters the lives of Joni and Laser -- sometimes for the better, sometimes not so much.

The movie is filled with memorable dialogue written by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg: Nic's wine-fueled rant against heirloom tomatoes and composting, Jules' firing a gardener for the way he is smiling at her after she's had sex, and their children's trying to navigate their way through adolescence and their moms' parenting, which is alternatively effective and so satirically touchy-feely as to be of little value.

Premiering inside the festival's Library Center Theatre, the movie generated exactly the kind of sustained laughter previously heard in the 446-seat auditorium at the first Sundance screenings of "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Hamlet 2." Both movies ended up sparking bidding wars (2004's "Napoleon Dynamite" sold for $3 million, while 2008's "Hamlet 2" fetched $10 million), but only one of those films, "Napoleon Dynamite," was a hit.

"The Kids Are All Right" almost didn't make it here.

Cholodenko had been feverishly working in the editing room, trying to underscore the film's humor as festival programmers waited to see if she could finish in time. She made it only after most of the choice slots were taken, resulting in the film's being wedged into the small confines of the Library Center rather than the festival's venue for premieres, the 1,270-seat Eccles Theater.

"We just decided 'Let's make it fit,' " Cooper said. "No matter how many good films I have, I always want more."

The film is being sold by Cinetic Media, the sales agent behind the blockbuster "Little Miss Sunshine" deal for $10.5 million to Fox Searchlight four years ago. A multimillion-dollar deal for "The Kids Are All Right" would mark the festival's second meaningful sale at the festival, after Lionsgate's $3.2-million purchase Sunday of Ryan Reynolds' claustrophobic thriller "Buried."

Though Cholodenko's film played to a hyper-enthusiastic audience in its first screening, some buyers woke up Tuesday morning debating an age-old Sundance question: Did "The Kids Are All Right" have the makings of a broad hit? Or was it, given the subject matter and the sex scenes, more of an art house release that would struggle to gross more than $15 million? Was the Library Center screening -- audiences actually applauded when Bening's character recited lyrics to a Joni Mitchell song -- a false barometer of the film's real potential outside of Park City?

One potential buyer pointed to the 2006 Sundance title "Friends With Money," a similar movie that featured a bigger star (Jennifer Aniston) but grossed only $13.4 million.

But as Sundance winds down -- and buyers contemplate heading back to Los Angeles and New York with no new films in their checked luggage -- the appeal of "The Kids Are All Right" will likely rise rather than fall.

john.horn@latimes.com

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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