Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

Only one of many successes onscreen in The Kids Are All Right is the portrayal of a Hispanic gardener. In even the most highbrow of family dramas, a three-scene throwaway supporting character like Luis might all too easily get left in the realm of the underwritten. This is not to say that Luis, who is accused of having a drug problem after an allergy-induced sneeze, is not a stereotype: in fact, all of the characters here are stereotypes. What writer-director Lisa Cholodenko carries out is the neat trick of imbuing them with a refreshing self-awareness. Luis chuckles at his fate and comes out cleaner than most of the major characters. He just likes the flowers.

Luis is contracted by Jules (Julianne Moore) to assist in her fledgling landscape design business. As half of a middle-aged lesbian couple with two kids, Jules is starting to feel restless after 18 years of motherhood without anything approaching a career. Her partner Nic (Annette Bening) is a doctor, and the one who pays for their lovely house and all the expensive wine they drink.

This feeling of housewife-neglect is just one facet of the couple's simmering malaise: as their two kids struggle with adolescence, a craving for 'normalcy' has eroded the family's foundation. They have an 18-year-old perfect-angel daughter who's just graduated as valedictorian of her high school and a 15-year-old son who needs a father figure. In turn, the two kids go behind their moms' backs to seek out the man whose sperm donation brought them into existence.

The donor is Paul, a naïve man's man with a touch of gray played by Mark Ruffalo. Before getting contacted by the children he didn't know he had, Paul was coasting through life as a successful restaurateur and purveyor of organic produce. He has a lot of casual sex and leaves several buttons undone. If he sounds like a cocksure stereotype of effortless sexuality and a predestined 'no-man-is-an-island' growth arc, he is. His son, upon meeting him, refers to his new father as "kinda into himself."

Jules is a "depressed, middle-aged lesbian", her son Laser (namesake never explained) is a "sensitive jock type", Joni (named after Mitchell) "got all A's and got into every school", Nic is a "control freak" and Paul is a "doer, not a learner". They're all familiar characters. Paul's entrance forces the foursome to reassess their already-fragile union, and what's so fun is watching the awkward friction and identity crises between these five strangers who all want to be a family together.

The movie works through two simple, distinct qualities: the script is tight and funny, full of forward momentum, and the actors are all dynamite. Whenever it seems like Ruffalo is starting to steal the show—Paul's role is to be distractingly charismatic—Cholodenko carefully assigns equal screentime to the other four. It's an ensemble piece where when characters bicker, it's impossible to take sides. We want them to get along.

And then this is where the movie starts surprising. As Paul, despite his own and everyone else's better intentions, starts taking up the mantle of fatherhood—he imparts social advice for his kids and parenting advice for the moms—it becomes clear that these characters have painted themselves into a corner. The inciting incident was born of Laser's desire for paternal normalcy and quickly this idea festers inside the other characters. But there isn't room for three parents in a 'normal' family and somebody is going to have to lose.

It's not long before an overwhelming sadness takes over. Even as the movie is consistently hilarious, mining laughs from awkward discussions of sexuality and from the minutiae of home life, all five gradually become aware that they will be victims of their own desires for self-actualization. The characters win you over by being funny and warm and then screw you by being human. At one point, a character loses control and goes off on a rant about self-absorbed, eco-friendly, organic food-eating stereotypes, even as she orders another bottle of a specific favored wine. There is another winking moment where one of the moms describes lesbian porn as fallacious, because it usually involves two straight actresses faking it.

It's a self-aware picture about self-aware characters going out of their way to fit their circular selves into square spaces. Ultimately moving and incisive in its glances into both middle age and adolescence, The Kids Are All Right is an exquisite, eloquent drama that's as true to itself as it is to its audience. It's an increasingly rare commodity in our self-important arthouse multiplexes — you get the impression everyone on screen would love this movie. The film is an exercise in honesty, and a pure delight.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

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