Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids are All Right is a superbly acted ensemble dramedy that satisfies as light and airy entertainment with doses of emotional depth. Unfortunately, while the film lands a connection when it comes to its portrayal of a modern day family, it gets caught up in soapy and contrived situations affecting the authenticity it otherwise achieves.
While award show kudos will decide which one of the five actors in The Kids are All Right is the lead, for all intents and purposes this is a film with five equal and noteworthy acting contributions. Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and Josh Hutcherson (Journey to the Center of the Earth) play Joni and Laser, the two children at the center of this story. Their mothers, Jules (Moore) and Nic (Bening), were each artificially inseminated with sperm from the same donor and once the kids set out to find their biological father (Mark Ruffalo) the family dynamic is tested from all angles.
Bening began earning acclaim for her performance since the film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and I am sure she’ll be riding a wave all the way through Oscar nominations. Unfortunately this means Julianne Moore is likely to be overlooked for the second year in a row as her performance in last year’s A Single Man virtually went unnoticed. In fact, Moore is just as effective as Bening, who certainly had the more melancholy heavy lifting, but Moore was asked to touch upon all aspects of human emotions, most notably disappointment as Jules is left alone as her water cools in an upstairs bathtub.
Ruffalo as Paul, the sperm donating hipster, turns in a good performance, but the fact his character is more of a contrivance than anything else is a problem. Playing something of a sort-of-decent, half-witted college dropout Paul is simply a story device rather than a fleshed out character. When Cholodenko needs something to happen she calls up Paul to turn the situation on its head. The story is then allowed to continue as the family reacts to what’s just happened. He’s a character that occasionally goes too far and is left to carry the brunt of the blame. I certainly don’t defend his actions, but he hardly has much of a choice.
Hutcherson and Wasikowska aren’t asked to do too much beyond their initial curiosity as the story slowly turns from being about their search for their biological father and becomes more about the mothers and how they are dealing with the situation. For the most part this is because the children deal with the situation with a bit more maturity, but they aren’t exactly the ones being tested so the story shift is understandable.
The Kids are All Right is fantastic in the way it tests what it means to be good parents and the importance of family. It also raises the question of whether or not it’s a good thing for children to be parented by a gay couple. How important is it for a child to have a parent of the opposite sex? Can a child be successfully raised by two loving parents no matter then gender? The best part about these questions is The Kids are All Right doesn’t even ask them outright. They are questions that come about as a result of the story and not by any filmmaker manipulation and actually leave the door open for a legitimate contrarian opinion.
Cholodenko doesn’t appear to have made this film with any agenda in mind rather than portray a modern day loving family, and with co-writer Stuart Blumberg she succeeds, and even better there are several moments of solid comedy mixed in.
This is the story of a family forced to deal with jealousy, approval and the continued effort involved in caring and remaining dedicated to their loved ones. While all families may not deal with the repercussions of a sperm donor as an outside third party, comparable situations arise that cause for cracks in a relationship. It’s the dealing with those cracks that strengthen and fortify the family bond. Of course, sometimes they can’t be repaired, but that too is just another fact of life.
The Kids are All Right is a good film, and I suspect had Cholodenko known she was going to get such great performances as those turned in by Bening and Moore she and Blumberg wouldn’t have tried so hard when it came to Ruffalo’s character. As a result the film comes off more as the story of an authentic family dealing with a hypothetical, made-up situation. It works, but stumbles a bit as a certain level of authenticity is lost along the way.