Director Lisa Cholodenko, who also helmed Video Station favorite Laurel Canyon, has brought us another well-crafted and deeply affecting film in The Kids Are All Right. Lesbian couple Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are happily raising their two teenage children, who were conceived by artificial insemination, in sunny Los Angeles. The elder child, played by Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) has reached the age where she can no longer resist the urge to know who her birth father is, and she quickly finds him in Paul, played by Mark Ruffalo. No real surprises ensue in the mess that follows, but just as in Laurel Canyon, what counts is Cholodenko’s careful and loving handling of her actors, especially in allowing them to slowly develop their characterizations with humor and warmth, but also with the requisite sharp edges that smart people tend to have.
I first saw this film at The Mayan in Denver, on opening weekend (I was indeed very eager, having loved Laurel Canyon). It was a packed house, and the audience appeared to be a bit nervous, perhaps because films like this don’t come around too often; a sophisticated concoction of drama and comedy is rare these days. People around me were reacting in one of two ways: either with dead silence, or constantly tittering. My take on this is that the intelligent and quite matter-of-fact portrayal of a lesbian couple, played by such powerful and well-known actresses, just wasn’t in the playbook of the average moviegoer. And I agree–it was refreshing to see such a modern portrayal of a different kind of family, but the gradations of humor were subtle, and required much self-monitoring of one’s perceptions and pre-conceived notions of what’s meant as humor and what’s meant as poignance.
Just as in Laurel Canyon, Cholodenko loves to show us the utter humanity in her characters, none of whom are perfect, all of whom have their moral strengths and foibles in equal measure. Her protagonists make mistakes we can identify with, while we are also horrified by them; these characters always recognize their missteps, at least in retrospect, and are chastened by these recognitions. Nic is possessed of moral surety, and yet is overbearing. Jules is warm and pliant, but is also manipulated too easily by stronger personalities. Paul is hip, cool, and nice, but can’t quite seem to empathize in more than a narcissistic way. And yet none of this comes off as nasty, or is even meant to skewer the characters; all is done in the service of a positive, communal, and humanistic conviviality. The apex of this aesthetic is contained in one perfect jewel of a scene, which involves Annette Bening and Joni Mitchell–but I won’t intrude on your reaction to it. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
DVD Release Date: 11/16/10