The miracle of Lisa Cholodenko’s funny, wise, and warm The Kids Are All Right is not that it successfully showcases a lesbian family, but that it successfully showcases a family, period.
The first time we see Jules (Julianne Moore), she’s at the table with her teenage children Laser (Josh Hutchinson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowksa), dishing salad from a wooden bowl onto their plates. When Jules’s doctor wife Nic (Annette Bening) comes home, first offering a weak apology for being late and then subtly suggesting that Jules has put out the wrong wine, we believe—and this is crucial—that she and Jules are really married, that these are really their children, and that we have simply dropped in on a typical family dinner.
It’s in these first few scenes that Cholodenko deftly establishes much of the film’s dynamic: That Jules is starting a new landscaping business, although Nic dismissively calls it “that gardening thing.” That Nic is a control freak who is somewhat disapproving of her wife’s hippie-ish ways. (“If your mom had it her way, you guys would never send thank you notes, just good vibes,” she tells the kids.) That Laser has fallen in with a new friend whom both moms consider to be a bad influence. And that Joni, a good student, is heading off to college.
Of course, Cholodenko throws a wrench into the mix in the form of Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the man who anonymously donated the sperm Nic and Jules used to create their family. Paul, a shaggy biker/philosopher type, is easygoing to a fault, so he doesn’t hesitate when the sperm bank calls and asks if he wants to meet his children (it was Laser’s idea).
They meet, secretly, at the restaurant/food co-op that Paul owns, and suddenly Paul is a new presence in the family’s life: playing basketball with Laser, hiring Jules to landscape his garden (and falling for her in the process), bonding with Joni over organic food, and generally irritating Nic.
I get the feeling that Cholodenko, who also directed High Art and Laurel Canyon, runs a very laid back set, because she always manages to tease the most natural and unaffected performances from her cast. Both the teen stars—Hutchinson, as the sweet kid who hides behind a false mask of disaffection, and Wasikowksa, as the good daughter growing weary of her own dutifulness—are excellent. And the adult stars have never been better.
Bening, who is always great but sometimes puts a few too many sharp edges on her roles, could’ve easily overplayed Nic’s passive aggression. Instead, she plays Nic as though she fears that losing control is tantamount to losing her family.
Moore, in essence, is playing the kind of part we saw a lot in the ’70s—a woman trying to define herself beyond the confines of her spouse and children. Moore shows Jules’s burgeoning delight as she realizes that someone can still be taken with her feminine charms.
As for Ruffalo, he hasn’t had a part this suited to his gifts since You Can Count on Me. In some ways, the Paul is the masculine ideal—decent, earthy, and sexy. But in other ways, he’s a fraud. Getting a glimpse at a family that could’ve been his own, he begins to realize that his carefree life may have a hollow center.
Cholodenko’s insights into the small ways that families hurt (and heal) each other is remarkable. But it would all mean nothing if she hadn’t achieved the most essential thing—convincing us that this flawed but lovable family existed before the film began and will go on existing long after the closing credits are through.