There are few films as soulful and human as Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right. That a film can set itself apart from the pack by merely being human is somewhat depressing, but there you have it. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore star as a middle-aged lesbian couple dealing with the trials and tribulations of marriage – trials that are only accentuated when the biological father of their children wanders into their life. This film – despite expectations – doesn’t go out of its way to make a political statement about gay marriage or IVF. Just when you think you have Cholodenko’s picture figured out (“…it’s a left-wing message movie! No wait, it’s a sex farce…”) it wriggles out of whichever box you’ve placed it in. The result is one of the most honest depictions of marriage (or any long-term relationship that has weathered a few storms) in recent cinema history. And perhaps that is the most political statement of all.
Nic (Bening) and Jules (Moore) Allgood are the loving parents of Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). The kids are, as the title suggests, perfectly normal (in fact, the title seems to act as a pre-emptive strike against anyone who dares to think their upbringing is “unconventional”). Joni and Laser have typical teenage issues, but there is certainly no lack of love and support from their two moms. Still, they’re curious to meet their maker – the man responsible for donating the sperm that Nic and Jules used to help create their darling children. That man is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), an easy-going restaurateur who flirts dangerously close with self-satisfied douchebaggery.
Upon turning 18, Joni contacts Paul and brings him over to meet the family, much to her mothers’ dismay. The kids connect with Paul immediately, despite the fact that he’s totally ill-equipped for parenthood. Nic and Jules wonder if they’ve failed their children in some way. What can a man give them that they cannot? Although Nic remains steely to the father of her children, Jules forms a bond with Paul. He offers her the appreciation that Nic has long forgotten to bestow. Cracks begin to show in the Allgood’s seemingly-unshakable marriage. Actually, the cracks may have been there all along. Sure, the kids are all right, but who’s looking out for the parents?
Bening pares it back (for once) and delivers the best performance of her career as Nic. She’s a woman who at first seems unflappable, only to descend into a state of crushing, internalised neurosis (and not shrill madness as in American Beauty). She watches her family drift away from her, and can only bring herself to reach out to them when it’s too late. Somehow, Bening still finds the humour. Moore similarly delivers another wonderful performance as the flaky Jules, reminding us just how warm and naturally funny she can be. As for Ruffalo, well, you can chalk him up as a lock for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in 2011 (if not a win). Few antagonists are as eminently likable as he.
Screenwriters Stuart Blumberg and Cholodenko have good ears for dialogue, finding the balance between witty repartee and humble mumbling, giving each character a distinct voice. Their script is occasionally on the nose, particularly in the first half as it establishes Nic and Jules’ relationship. However, their sexuality is mostly handled with care. They refrain from slipping either character into typical “husband” and “wife” archetypes. Only a clumsy sequence in which the duo enjoy an all-male porno raises eyebrows (it turns out to be the sexual equivalent of a “gun in the first act”).
The Kids Are All Right is funny, poignant, and brutally honest with its characters and its audience. Will it be remembered as a landmark film for its depiction of gay marriage? Hard to say. Will it change people’s perception of gay marriage? Impossible to say. The Kids Are All Right does not set out to hammer home a message. It does not argue that a gay couple can raise children better than a straight couple, nor does it claim a woman and man can make relationships work better than two men or two women can. What it does argue is that relationships – of any kind – are messy; love is messier, and keeping a family together is harder than halting a BP oil spill. Just find someone willing to join you as you slog through the muck, and that’ll make it all worthwhile.