Director Lisa Cholodenko's movie, premiering at LAFF on Thursday night, unfolds around Venice and Echo Park. Its characters include a community gardener who runs a restaurant focused on locally grown organic ingredients, and Joni Mitchell's music figures prominently in the narrative. The film's central plot — a lesbian couple's interloping sperm donor upends their yuppie family life — could hardly be more Left Coast.
Yet the movie from the " Laurel Canyon" filmmaker was once set in New York, and some of the story's central creative decisions were shaped not only from its earlier placement thousands of miles away but also by what Cholodenko experienced while living in Manhattan.
The most talked-about title (and the biggest sale at $5 million) in January's Sundance Film Festival, "The Kids Are All Right" follows many of the conventions of the domestic suburban dramedy: take a seemingly ordinary, interesting couple with some smart, distinct teenagers and see how many deep and potentially dangerous fissures are revealed when the family is twisted in uncomfortable directions.
Although Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg's script may start with that familiar form, "The Kids Are All Right" veers into fresh directions from the start. Nic ( Annette Bening) and Jules ( Julianne Moore) boot up gay male porn to spark a frisky bedroom mood. They try so hard to parent their daughter Joni (" Alice in Wonderland's" Mia Wasikowska) and son Laser ("Bridge to Terabithia's" Josh Hutcherson) that they risk parodying emotionally honest child-rearing. And when the film's couples go at it (either in fighting or in lovemaking), they do so with a frankness that you rarely witness — so much so that the Motion Picture Assn. of America initially said the film was too sexually explicit for even an R rating.
"Yes," Cholodenko says, "I had to cut some thrusting." What she didn't trim was the venom in Nic and Jules' clashes. "If it were up to you, our kids wouldn't even write thank-you cards. They'd just send out good vibes," Nic says to Jules derisively at one point. Says Cholodenko, "In long-term relationships, sometimes your resentments can turn on a dime."
Cholodenko says the roughest ideas behind "The Kids Are All Right," which opens in domestic theaters July 9, started taking shape while she was living in New York several years back, after she had directed 2002's "Laurel Canyon" and 1998's "High Art," both acclaimed (albeit not high-grossing) art-house works distinguished enough to show at the Cannes Film Festival. The 46-year-old Cholodenko was single and a lot of her acquaintances were talking about starting families. "It was on my mind a lot — time is ticking," she says.
Some of the lesbian couples she knew were starting families using sperm from friends, while others were turning to anonymous donors. Cholodenko eventually moved to Los Angeles, fell in love with film composer Wendy Melvoin (who scored Cholodenko's Showtime movie "Cavedweller"), and they soon found themselves trolling for months through the online resumes of sperm donors at California Cryobank — where there are more options than at a Mercedes dealer. "It was excruciating," Cholodenko says of the selection process.
What intrigued Cholodenko and collaborator Blumberg wasn't so much the ordeal of picking a donor but the question of what might happen if the heretofore unknown father of a couple's children suddenly reappeared long after the kids were born. (In the case of "The Kids Are All Right," nearly two decades have passed before the children furtively decide to seek out their dad's identity.) "I was a sperm donor in college and I'd always been interested in what had happened" says Blumberg. "Lisa would say, 'Let's try to find out.' And I would just start shaking with panic."
The two started outlining the L.A.-based script in late 2004, and Moore eventually was cast as Jules, with Robin Wright Penn set to play Nic. But Moore didn't want to be away from her family in New York during filming, so Blumberg and Cholodenko rewrote their script, moving Nic and Jules to Maplewood, N.J., with their donor dad (played by Mark Ruffalo) living in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood.
It was in that relocation that the script underwent some minor but ultimately important changes. Paul, formerly just a successful restaurateur, became a devoted organic farmer, a change designed to make him seem hipper and cooler to Joni and Laser than Nic, their uptight physician mother (Jules is trying to start a landscape design business but has never really had a career). "He's a do-gooder, but what he's not looking at is the more immediate thing — that he's hurting people," Cholodenko says of Paul, whose involvement in Nic and Jules' affairs quickly starts a lot of trouble.
The Maplewood-Red Hook separation between the moms and the father also accentuated one of the film's primary themes: Paul may be genetically intertwined with this family, but he is really from a different world: they're suburban, he's urban. Although that geographical distinction was pruned when the movie was moved back to Los Angeles (to accommodate Bening, who had replaced Penn), the psychic delineation remained — Paul became more of an interloper in their lives.
Financing for the production was slowly coming together when Cholodenko became pregnant (her son is now 4). While she and Melvoin were starting their family, Cholodenko took a closer look at the script and felt it needed more work. "I got a new perspective," she says. Potential investors had loved the material, Cholodenko says, but wanted to make sure "I would tip it toward the comedic." At first, she says she resented the suggestion but eventually realized a little sugar would make the film's (and, specifically, Nic's) medicine go down easier.
"I think the comedy makes the impact greater," Cholodenko says. "If Nic can make you laugh, you will embrace her and not reject her."
At the same time, Cholodenko and Blumberg (who is single) focused on making sure the couple's children were the family's voices of reason. "They are much more level-headed and together," Blumberg says of Joni (whose parents named her after Joni Mitchell) and Laser. "Their parents are the neurotic ones."
"The Kids Are All Right" arrives at an unusual time. The debate over gay marriage has never been more spirited and schismatic, but for the first time a Gallup poll found that the percentage of Americans who view "gay and lesbian relations" as morally acceptable has surpassed 50%.
That Nic and Jules are a lesbian couple is important to the movie thematically, Cholodenko says, because they are raising a family in an unconventional setting and are more anxious than some parents about how having two moms will affect the mental health of their children.
"But it could have been the same thing with a divorced couple," she says. "I always thought we were making a movie about a family, and the threat to the wholeness of the family. It was not about politics. If there was anything calculated, it was how do we make this movie universal — how do we make this a story about a family?"