The Kids Are All Right didn’t have to be a good movie. In the wake of the national marriage-rights debates, a sizable segment of the moviegoing public is eager to see what were once called “alternative” families portrayed on film without snickering, whitewashing or special pleading. Like Kramer vs. Kramer introducing the radical proposition that dads could raise kids back in 1979, Lisa Cholodenko’s film comes at a watershed moment. More and more young Americans use the term “family values” in ways Jerry Falwell or Ronald Reagan would never have countenanced — and without irony.
The Kids Are All Right is about the family values of a two-mom household, without irony. Cholodenko, who directed High Art and Laurel Canyon, doesn’t do special pleading. She’s confident enough to include a joke where one of her (straight) stars tsk-tsks at porn movies in which straight women play lesbians, calling them “so inauthentic.”
OK, so Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are acting here. Angling for Oscars, even. But, thanks to the strong cast and the writers’ keen ear for dialogue, the movie comes off as true to human experience — and funny.
Bening and Moore play Nic and Jules, a cozy, affluent California couple with a great house and two teenage kids, college-bound Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and high school jock Laser (Josh Hutcherson). They have their tensions: Nic, a perfectionist doctor, likes being the breadwinner, while the flakier Jules wishes she could get a career off the ground. But things don’t get really difficult until Laser bugs Joni, who’s of legal age, to make contact with their common sperm donor.
The donor turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo), an affable, sexy, aging bachelor who grows organic veggies and serves them at his own restaurant. This will eventually provoke a vociferous anti-localvore rant from Bening’s character — just one of the ways in which Kids is more reflective of Vermonters’ daily concerns than 90 percent of Hollywood’s output.
Meanwhile, in one of those ironic tricks life plays, Joni turns out to like their common biological dad way more than her brother does. After decades with a demanding partner, Jules appreciates Paul’s laid-back ways, too — perhaps too much.
As actors, the kids definitely are all right. Wasikowska, who nearly drowned in the CGI phantasmagoria of Alice in Wonderland, comes through here with a mature, wry presence, alternately sweet and cynical. As Laser, Hutcherson has the studied moral severity that many teens exhibit and few films about them capture. He matches up perfectly with Bening’s martinet mom, though she’s not his bio parent, and it’s hard to believe that, just three years ago, he was headlining kiddie fare like Firehouse Dog.
As for the adult actors — well, they’ve been praised enough, rightly so. Suffice it to say that Ruffalo should stop playing second banana to people such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Adrien Brody and always do this rumpled-satyr thing he can do. Moore is slyly hilarious as a woman too willing to be tempted, and Bening makes her hardass character relatable.
Really, the biggest problem I have with this film is that it’s not a TV series. Like many indie domestic dramas, it trails off more than it ends, when characters like these are people you’d happily get to know better over the course of an 18-hour season. Kids leaves us with both poignant moments and pressing questions — foremost among them, why did someone like Bening permit her offspring to be named Laser? (Joni is self-explanatory, but an homage to Star Wars...?) Guess we’ll have to wait for an HBO spinoff to find out.