Friday, July 9, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

This film is more than all right.  In fact it's a refreshing, spot-on, wonderfully witty comedy of manners that represents a peak for it's fine cast, as well as writer-director Lisa Cholodenko, whose previous credits include the not very similarly lesbian-themed High Art, and Laurel CanyonThe Kids Are All Right is a rare film that's insightful, intelligent and genuinely crowd-pleasing, without any sort of self-righteous platitudes or preaching.  The laughs, which are plentiful, are earned, as well as deeper emotions.  What may end up being the greater reward is that film, centered around two middle-aged lesbians, is that it never plays like a niche gay arts film, but actually a universal, quite commercial film about a family.  Such as Brokeback Mountain, there's absolutely no politics aboard here, but complicated, interesting, messy human relationships.  This one just happens to center around two married women, their two teenage kids, and sperm donor who made it happen.  It all sounds like a bad high concept sitcom for the Bravo network, but with a top drawer cast, and a generous, intelligent script (co-written by Stuart Blumberg), The Kids Are All Right is the best alternative (so far at least) to very noisy, and mostly unspectacular summer.

Annette Bening plays Nic, a controlling, type-A doctor who's razor sharp tongue is often quite intimidating.  She's a hard shell to crack, but also an obviously fiercely intelligent, strong woman.  She's the dominate, "man" of the house.  Julianne Moore plays Jules, her wife-- she's more of the fun, laid-back, stay at home wife.  There's a great scene early on where Nic and Jules tell the story of how they met.  Jules had a swollen tongue, and Nic being the doctor she visited comforted her.  Nic says, "you were so pretty,"  Jules says, "you were so smart."  Even though they have a classic Odd Couple dynamic, there's a distinctive chemistry that bonds them.  Together they play one of the most committed, and natural couplings in recent screen history-- and completely non-threatening lesbians to the conservative audience members.  They have two children-- Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Jon Hutcherson)-- which was used by the same sperm donor, courtesy of Paul (Mark Ruffalo.)  When the kids hitch a plan to meet their dad the story and film settles into a fine comedy, with hints of the serious, and a bit of melancholy-- all sublime.

What Cholodenko captures perfectly is the awkwardness of all the evidents-- the meeting of Paul by the kids, and eventually the parents, and the various interactions.  The film honestly and comically explores all the squirmy proceedings, all of which is performed brilliantly the cast.  Paul is a mellow, easy-going guy, sweet, but perhaps both a bit full of himself and un-sure of himself, which is firmly puts him on more common ground with Jules than Nic, who prefers everything tidy and together.  He becomes attractive to the kids because of his cool demeanor-- he drives a motorcycle, and runs a local-grown eco-friendly organic restaurant-- which is all a little too hippy\flakey for Nic.  Ruffalo is terrific in the role, conveying both easy going charm (he's a bit of ladies man, I'll say no more), but with a bachelor longing for the stability of Nic and Jules.  It's one of his best performances.

Moore is wonderful is well, filling in the spacey Jules with a charm that this wonderful actor hardly gets to really exhibit, what with her reputation in hardcore dramatics.  She adeptly handles the humor, but is heartfelt as a woman that's unsure of herself, always feeling recessive to Nic.  As for Bening, she has the hardest part; in less gifted hands Nic might be seen as a shrew, a critical nag with a drinking problem (she likes her red wine), but Bening is far too talented for any one-note take on a role, and makes Nic one her greatest concoctions, slowly revealing notes of vulnerability and softness-- in the end she might be considered best in show here, and that's saying a lot.

The Kids Are All Right doesn't neglect the kids either, and they're pretty swell too, especially Wasikowska.  Playing Joni (named after Mitchell as discussed in one the most memorable scenes), the film also deals with a young woman leaving the nest-- she's headed to college as all this going down.  Previously seen as the lone bright spot in the otherwise abysmal Alice in Wonderland, here we get a refreshing and wonderful look a a young actress, without any CGI crap getting in the way, and she plays the part of a women in discovery of oneself with a clear and lovely precision; she's sometimes angry, but always lovely.  So kids going to college is a theme in the two best movies of the summer, this and Toy Story 3, go figure.
But what I enjoyed most about this film is the generosity of spirit.  Everyone here is an equal, no one villainized, all carefully and fully drawn out.  I think it's perhaps the finest ensemble comedy since Juno.  And while the film may make some nervous, especially in parts of the country not particularly embracing of gay marriage, there's a wonderful feeling inclusion to this film.  There's a few aspects that might be viewed as transgressive (particularly when Nic and Jules use gay male porn as an aphrodisiac), but ultimately as the title proclaims, the kids are all right, as well as the moms, and the world itself when films this rich come about.  A

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