Director Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids are All Right is an exceptional film that pulls off the trick of making the ordinary extraordinary by spinning a tale of a wholly nontraditional family into something utterly universal.
Nic (Bening) and Jules (Moore) are a longtime L.A. couple in the midst of a midlife sweatpants malaise. They are lesbians, each the biological mother of a teen child from the same sperm donor.
Upon departing for college, daughter Joni (Wasikowska) makes a tentative phone call to track down the mystery donor. Turns out he's nearby, accessible and terminally hip, cruising around Silverlake on his motorcycle and running a trendy organic restaurant, stocked with lush fruit and vegetables he grows himself in the nearby hills. Playboy Paul (Ruffalo) picks up the phone on a whim — the same way he makes every choice in his life — but finds the new role of instant daddy to be oddly enriching. The kids think he's pretty cool too, especially sensitive son Laser (Josh Hutcherson), who's looking for a better male influence than his idiot skater buddy. As Paul slowly works his way into the family's unsteady core, resentment and jealousy bloom — in some cases, rightfully so.
Ruffalo is forever seductive, almost unconsciously, as if sensuality were a cloud that hovered over him. When Jules begins a remodeling project in Paul's overgrown backyard, the sexual tension between them is nearly visible, like arcs of electricity sparking between their softly pursed lips.
Though the script sometimes dips into dreary therapist blather, the actors smartly keep a few paces ahead of it. Other times, Cholodenko tries too hard to make her teens sound hip, such as Joni's insecurely slutty friend, who tosses off cutesy Diablo Cody-ready wordage: "Fair enough hairy muff," or "Your spermster is a total hottie."
While cracks exist here, the overall impression is of realistic, lived-in lives full of all the hurts, regrets and joys of any loving family. As the sternly responsible Nic, Bening looks weathered and leathery, but her complete lack of vanity keys her performance — she's emotionally uncomfortable and loving in equal measure to her rawness.
Ruffalo and Moore are both terrific, turning in award-worthy work. But the real revelation is Wasikowska; fresh from Tim Burton's Alice, she embraces beautifully the even stranger realm of adult drama.
In a sense, Cholodenko has filed an amicus brief on the viability of lesbian parentage; her most compelling argument is how normal the neurosis and relationship issues look in the hazy West Coast light. Jules and Nic are full of doubt and mistrust, which from the outside appears sort of silly. Though the script was co-authored by Cholodenko's friend Stuart Blumberg, there's an end to understanding that leaves the male characters feeling ever-so-slightly unfinished. Still, considering the myriad mainstream films that treat women like set dressing, The Kids Are All Right is refreshing.
In one of her garden encounters with Paul, Jules uses the word "fecund," and that's what this film is: rich, alive and warm but also painfully fragile. The Kids Are All Right is complicated and messy, awkward and brilliant, and as so often happens with families, it disappoints us even as we fall deeper in love with it.
Open Friday, July 23 at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].