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.
The laughter and the tears are set in motion when 15-year-old Laser ( Josh Hutcherson) presses his 18-year-old sister Joni (an excellent Mia Wasikowska) to use her new legal standing to find out who their bio-dad is. While curiosity does not quite kill the cat, it definitely upends this seemingly settled family headed by Bening’s Nic, a doctor and by-the-book breadwinner and Moore’s Jules, the easy-going stay-at-home half. As for the kids, Joni’s an honors student headed to college in the fall and Laser’s the star athlete trying to figure out his emerging self, so definitely they’re all right, but change is in the air.
Enter Ruffalo’s Paul, a PC-liberal dreamboat of a donor dad, who spends his days tending the organic vegetable garden that supplies his hipster-chic restaurant at night. He also comes with a self-deprecatingly smug charm about his college dropout success, farm-to-table lifestyle and unencumbered bachelorhood. By the time Nic finally breaks in the face of all that eco-goodness dissolving into an anti-composting rant, it’s hard to suppress the desire to cheer.
With all the players in place, the filmmakers set about deconstructing life as the family knows it, with Paul their weapon of mass deconstruction. Everything about him is seductive, with the kids falling hard for their newly acquired father-figure, followed in short order by Jules and even a very resistant Nic. But then, the lovable incorrigible is Ruffalo’s sweet spot and his performance here, if possible, is even more refined than his breakout in another intimate family drama, “You Can Count on Me.”
At first Paul represents endless possibility: the cool parent whom kids fantasize about, the unexpected lover who believes in you and your dreams, the latecomer who turns out to be the life of the party even as his very presence is redefining the family. But in filmmaker Cholodenko’s increasingly sure hands, life is neither easy, nor neat and tidy. As she has done in her previous work, “High Art” and the incisive “Laurel Canyon,” she cuts to the bone of human emotions, with the humans themselves fraying around the edges.
In “The Kids Are All Right” it’s hard to tell who is fraying faster, Nic or Jules. They are a typical long-coupled couple, focused on the routine of daily life and forgetful of the romance that brought them together. At home, as well as at work, Bening’s Nic is scalpel sharp. Tension radiates around her like an energy field with Bening using it against her fear of the unknown and then the greater fear of the known.
As the serious one with a domineering streak, Bening has the harder task unearthing her character’s humanity without any of the cuddle factor that everyone else has been given. But as she did in “American Beauty,” she makes the unlikable understandable, forgivable. In “Kids” she manages to be funny in ways so subtle you might miss them if they weren’t so perfectly played in the cock of her head, the roll of an eye. And when the deep wounds come, and they do, you’re allowed tears even if Nic isn’t.
Where Nic is brittle, Jules is the bough that breaks and in taking her there Moore is fearless. There are countless moments when the actress strips bare before the camera — sometimes literally, sometimes emotionally, but always with an abandon that exposes all of the character’s complicated layers. Jules is an existential bundle of unrealized need and midlife uncertainty, and Moore plays every note perfectly.
The kids, who really serve as a counterweight for the craziness brought about by bio-dad’s desire to have a place in their lives, are refreshingly real. Wasikowska, in particular, is exceptional — disappointment lingering in her eyes, face quivering on the edge of tears as one after another of her parents lets her down, as parents inevitably do. While she may be best known for her delightful Alice in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” it is the mix of vulnerability and steel she brings to HBO’s “In Treatment,” as one of Gabriel Byrne’s troubled clients, that most informs Joni.
Before they’ve finished wringing everything out of their actors, the filmmakers dredge through the issues — age old and thoroughly modern — that come along to threaten that most basic of bonds. Fierce, funny, smart and overflowing with love, this unconventionally conventional film sits squarely in the family values camp, which is exactly where it belongs.