Sunday, August 08, 2010

Film Review #232: The Kids Are All Right
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Cast: Annette Bening, Julainne Moore, Mark Ruffalo

At long last her good manners have snapped, but her dignity has never been more intact. Striding to the front door from the supper table in a way that makes you breathe, “Uh-oh!” – I remember my grandmother was able to do this too – Nic (Annette Bening) comes up behind her 15-year-old son Laser (Josh Hutcheson) to have a word with his father. Actually Paul (Mark Ruffalo) was the sperm donor of Laser and his older sister Joni (Mia Wasikowska), and has come belatedly into their lives during that transitional summer between Joni’s high school graduation and departure to college. Just as Joni needs to pull away a bit from her family, Laser has convinced her to seek out their common dad, who runs a local eatery supplied by his own garden and seems to have his pick of the women staffing both.

“…Well, this is not your family,” concludes Nic, just before slamming that door in Paul’s face. “This is my family. If you want a family, go make your own.”

Filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko has said of Nic – older partner of Jules (Julianne Moore), family breadwinner, OB-GYN physician, guardian of shaping the children’s social graces, who has endured much from the genial, shambling Paul as has everyone in her household – that “she’s a bit of a mama bear.” This is not clear earlier in the film or even for quite some way into the story, not before the quite remarkable dinner scene in which Nic first wills herself to see what about this man her partner and kids find so appealing, reveals her own tender side – they both love the vintage album Blue by Joni Mitchell, Nic’s daughter’s namesake – and then discerns from Paul’s bathroom the betrayal a lover would grasp in a flash.

Cholodenko has been nursing this film project since 2005, when Julianne Moore, for whom she wrote the part of Jules, was already on board. Cholodenko was delayed in making the film and meanwhile she and her partner had a sperm-donor child of their own, an experience she attests sharpened the final script as well as her direction of its singular performances. It may also sharpen your experience of this film to realize that since the film’s wide release on July 23rd, a California court has struck down that state’s ban on gay marriage – put in place by voter referendum in 2008 as Proposition 8.

The film takes it name, of course, from “The Kids Are All Right,” the Pete Townshend song that first appeared on The Who’s 1965 album My Generation and has become an enduring, often-recorded anthem of successive decades asserting that the young folks are turning out just fine, thank you. Cholodenko has the same answer for those worrying about children growing up in gay unions, and in doing so avoids the legalistic “balanced argument” pitfall that is so deadly when it shows up in fiction. Cholodenko does this with a terrific script, terrific performances – there is not a slouch among them, even in very minor characters – and the strategy to frame the “issue” initially as a comedy of manners.

Instead of creating characters as mouthpieces for opposing positions, The Kids presents real and memorable people doing the best they can, which often falls short of what any of us would hope. Cholodenko systematically explores each character’s experience and point of view for a few scenes and then quietly shifts to the next. This is risky; to see why Jules and the kids and Paul find Nic overbearing and fussy and a little comical, we have to see her as – well, overbearing and fussy and a little comical. The reversal has to be, as in the dinner scene, pitch perfect – or Nic becomes merely lugubrious and we feel jerked around by a filmmaker who can’t decide on or manage her tone.

Reversals and misunderstandings among the earnest are the stuff of farce too, and this is a very funny movie, often at the expense of people behaving in the ways they think are proper and expected. But it’s not just a device that, for example, Nic insists the kids learn to write timely thank-you notes – of such details one builds the social freedom to navigate far and wide, to engage in respectful relationships, to be courteous when you don’t feel like it but know you must, to build a life one chooses. Marriage is hard, as Jules says late in the day, and I join those who find this the best and most knowing movie about that in a long time.

This review appears in the August 12, 2010 print edition of the Syracuse "Eagle" weekly and also in the A&E section of Eagle Newspapers' online site, “The Kids Are All Right” is screening locally at Manlius Art Cinema and Carousel Regal Cinemas.