Director Lisa Cholodenko provides the audience with a sharp and witty look at marriage and how, in the long run, things don’t always work out the way we envision them, in not only life, but also in love, marriage, and child-rearing. The Kids Are All Right is a smart, emotionally driven comedy that veers into drama, much like real life often does.
Julianne Moore and Annette Bening play Jules and Nic, a lesbian couple who are raising their children Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson) in California. They’re a well off, middle-class couple, but that doesn’t mean life isn’t a problem. Jules is in the middle of a mid-life crisis and Nic leans a bit too heavily on wine to get her through the afternoon. In the midst of this, Laser wants to meet the man who donated his sperm. Since Joni is 18 and legally an adult, he implores her to contact him.
Paul (Mark Ruffalo) is also at a crossroads in his life, having spent a majority of it sleeping around and building his business, a restaurant that is locally sourced from his own garden. When he meets Laser and Joni, his kids, he realizes just what kind of life he’s missing out on. Of course, his introduction to Nic and Jules’ less than perfect life unravels whatever tenuous bond was left between them and the audience learns that marriage, no matter how wonderful and perfect it is at the start, always becomes complicated and it’s a harder than hell job.
The best part about this film is the whipsmart performances from Moore, Bening, and Ruffalo. Ruffalo inhabits a bit of a cool space in the film, embodying an almost stereotypical California male who believes in the Earth, good food, good sex, and good wine. He’s a laid back character who still manages to be nuanced and layered the longer the audience spends time with him. It’s all thanks to Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg’s script. Make no mistake, though, despite him being a cool guy with feelings, he’s still an interloper and the story is reserved for Moore and Bening.
Of course, Bening is always stunning in every role she’s in. This one is no exception. The only problem is, Nic is annoying. Not only is she annoying, she’s also overbearingly and awkwardly so, which, for me, makes the film hard to watch. Cholodenko pulls no punches with Nic and never once does she make Nic likable, which is just fine because people are unlikeable in real life and it’s refreshing to see in a movie. Since Nic is so unlikeable, the character we’re really supposed to be sympathetic to is poor Jules.
In a lot of ways, Jules is like Paul. She’s free-spirited and a hippie at heart and is feeling left out in the cold by Nic’s controlling and emotionally stunted personality. Moore is the star of the story in this respect as she just tries to navigate Jules through the horrible realization that maybe Nic’s fallen out of love with her, maybe Nic never really loved her, or maybe she just doesn’t know who she is with Nic anymore. It’s a familiar story, but Cholodenko and Blumberg manage to make it fresh by making it awkward and funny and dramatic but still making sure it treads the line delicately less it descends into melodrama. Which it doesn’t do.
The Kids Are All Right is an interesting take on the nuclear family and how women feel as they age and mature. Sure, the story’s about marriage, but it’s also about finding oneself and maintaining oneself in the shadow of someone else and that’s something to be interested in and something refreshing to watch.