Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right is a shaggy comedy of manners that features strong performances and subtle, witty dialog. And, while I enjoyed it, I'll admit up front that it's not for everyone.
See, I believe there are at least 2 schools of thought when it comes to movies.
The first school of thought is that movies are all about spectacle. This school believes that movies are entertaining because of how different they are from reality. People who belong to this school tend to put a premium on special effects and fantastical storylines, paying money to see such movies as Avatar and The A-Team. Even a movie like Date Night, with its trappings of suburban & marital ennui, is an example of this school, since Steve Carell and Tina Fey soon find themselves transported into a plotline better suited to Bruce Willis.
The second school of thought holds that the best movies are as realistic as possible, creating characters and situations that play by the same rules as reality in a sort of "What If?" game meant to capture our sympathies and enlarge our understanding of what is possible -- all of which sounds like hard work when all you want to do is settle into your seat and watch things explode. The last thing many people want after a tough day at work is to spend a couple of hours slogging through the existential agonies of A Single Man, right?
These 2 schools of thought are not mutually exclusive, and a majority of moviegoers inhabit that shaded area in the Venn diagram where these two schools intersect. But I do believe that the "realistic" school is much smaller than the "spectacle" school. Just look at the grosses for evidence.
The Kids Are All Right is an example of the "realistic" school. It's about character and interaction and consequences. And it's funny in a wry, non-slapstick way. But the movie works only insofar as it's able to get you to care about its characters.
Frankly, though, the kind of person who can't sympathize with the characters in The Kids Are All Right is someone I would worry about. That's how good the performances in this movie are. Even the least sympathetic character is interesting and likable (except for Clay, who's just a jerk).
The setup is that a middle-aged lesbian couple with teenaged kids gets visited by the biological father of the kids, turning their comfortable world upside-down. I'm oversimplifying things for the sake of convenience, because, like in real life, things in this movie are complicated.
The couple, played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, anchor the movie as a devoted pair who have raised their kids in that Southern California milieu that seems both idyllic and fraught with discontent. Both actresses inhabit their roles wonderfully, with Bening playing the responsible older partner while Moore plays the more compulsive role. And both characters are smartly rendered as they embrace their carefully-built places in their world, even as they both chafe a bit at where they've found themselves. They love each other, but they're beginning to wonder about how things have turned out.
Their kids are also well-played, with the older daughter (Mia Wasikowska) readying herself to go off to college while the younger son (Josh Hutcherson), a jock who has managed to delineate himself well against a household of females, instigates a phone call that invites the sperm donor (played by Mark Ruffalo) to insinuate himself into the fold.
Ruffalo's character is a kind of post-hippie hippie, a restaurant-owner and organic gardener who rumbles into this family on his motorcycle and begins to subtly help these people dismantle their home. He's less a saboteur than a catalyst, though. He means well, but the lesbian marriage is strained and the children can't wait to fly from the nest.
So, besides the overt sexual orientation of the parents, this is a typical American middle-class family. Which, I think, is one of the director's points. Suffice it to say that one of the truest and funniest lines in the movie is, "Marriage is a marathon."
I don't want to reveal too much of The Kids Are All Right. Yes, complications ensue, and it's fun to watch how these complications both come out of and help define these characters. After all, as the old saying goes, "action is character," and I really think you'll enjoy this movie more if you just let it happen to you.
Comedies of manners work when they skewer the pretensions of their characters by highlighting how their public personas are at odds with their inner lives. This skewering is easy with one-dimensional characters. But The Kids Are All Right allows its own characters to be fully-embodied (again, except for Clay, who's just a jerk), so that such skewering has emotional and literal consequences. After all, no one likes to have their nose rubbed into their own failings. It's no fun when the life you've built gets shattered by your own mistakes.
But real life is a mess. There's precious little justice, let alone poetic justice, and our lives are largely haphazard and inconsistent. So is The Kids Are All Right, which ends just that way -- with a few loose ends and a bit of uncertainty. Ruffalo's character, in particular, is dealt with in a gruff way.
This is not to say that this movie is a downer. But it's not all lightness and hugs, either.
Still, the end rings true, in the way the lives of our friends do, where we know just enough to be able to talk about them and, if we are truly wise, we know just enough to not judge them too harshly.
written & directed by Lisa Cholodenko
starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo