This review of The Kids Are All Right appeared in the Australian Jewish News on September 8, 2010
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko
Written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg
Starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska
The film “The Kids All Right” – by American-Jewish lesbian director Lisa Cholodenko – can be classified in many ways. On one level, it is simply a very modern family story about a lesbian relationship in which each partner has a child from the same anonymous sperm donor, a film that would not feel out of place in Sydney’s “Queer Film Festival”. It is also a very personal story by director (and co-writer) Cholodenko, based on her own life and her relationship with musician Wendy Melvoin: Cholodenko has a son aged four named Calder with an anonymous sperm donor, and film is dedicated to Wendy and Calder.
But “The Kids Are All Right” – which closed this year’s Sydney Film Festival – has not been relegated to fringe festivals, and opens widely in Australian cinemas this week, largely because of its strong cast and very interesting characters. Set in Los Angeles (where else?), Annette Bening plays Nic, a doctor “married” to Jules (Julianne Moore), with their two kids – Nic’s 18 year old daughter Joni (played by Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, who was “Alice” in “Alice in Wonderland) and Jules’ 15 year old son Laser (Josh Hutcherson). And yes, Joni is named after Joni Mitchell, whose famed album “Blue” features in a breathtakingly uncomfortable dinner that takes place in the film’s final third. Mark Ruffalo plays Paul, the biological father of the two kids, and whose arrival in the film stimulates more than a little emotional discord and growth.
Nic and Jules all called “the moms” by their kids, and refer to each other as “chicken” and “pony”. They frequently use “California-speak” language, talking about their “highest selves” and read books with titles like “The Presence Progress”. Although they live a very pleasant upper middle class lifestyle, there are also tensions in the family. Nic is emotionally controlling and Jules is frustrated by her lack of a satisfying career. Laser has an unhealthy relationship with a guy named Clay, leading to the hilarious scene where his “moms” worry that he is gay. Joni has just graduated high school, and is about to leave home to attend university (in the American tradition of going away to “college”).
At age 18, Joni is legally able to search for her biological father, and at Laser’s urging does so. So along comes father Paul, an earthy, non-intellectual, organic restaurant owner who is also an unattached ladies man and cannot help putting out the “vibe” to almost every attractive woman he meets. Paul is, of course, totally unprepared for the emotional needs he encounters in this untraditional family and blunders through with a mixture of bluster, charm, naiveté and surprise as to what the moms and their kids bring out in him.
“The Kids Are All Right” gives a good, straightforward portrait of modern teenagers, and certainly has the most complete portrayal of a lesbian relationship I can remember seeing in a mainstream film. Annette Bening, who has been so glamorous in films like “The American President”, plays plain, brittle and “tight” in an emotional performance of wonderful subtlety, with Moore’s character emotionally looser but less grounded. Cholodenko – who in interviews always talks about her being Jewish – clearly based parts of both Nic and Jules on herself, but has removed any Jewish elements from the story, even though her co-writer is Stuart Blumberg, who produced and wrote the film “Keeping the Faith”, one of the most interesting recent Jewish films.
Fans of Cholodenko’s earlier films “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon” will certainly race to see “The Kids Are All Right”. It’s a mature and frequently uncomfortable film, and – considering it centres on a non-traditional household – portrays a remarkably conservative sensibility, coming down firmly on the side of the importance of family. The film’s ending is not fully satisfying in the usual sense: as we leave this group, there is a sense that the resolution is only temporary and new chapters await them all.
And here is the link to the trailer for The Kids Are All Right: