The Kids Are All Right

The lesbian parent movie Dan Quayle could get behind
Lisa Cholodenko
Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson
The Setup: 
Children of lesbian couple want to meet their sperm donor dad.

From Lisa Cholodenko, who brought us High Art and Laurel Canyon, comes this gentle, surprisingly mainstream comedy about a lesbian couple whose kids want to meet their sperm donor father, and the ripples that causes.

The film begins with us seeing Josh Hutcherson as Laser, our male teen protagonist, on a skateboard behind his friend on a bike, toppling over recycle bins. Then we see Mia Wasikowska as Joni, in a room surfing Facebook with her friends. Soon "Moms" come home, meaning Julianne Moore as Jules and Annette Bening as Nic, a couple who have been together over ten years. Already we see the signs that their relationship has fallen into a routine of gentle passive-aggressive wheedling of each other, and super-sensitive over-parenting of their kids. For example, they don't like Laser's friend, but approach it with a "Let's all talk openly and honestly, with mutual trust and respect" attitude, when obviously they just don't like him. Jules asks what Laser gets out of the friendship, and whether he thinks the friend is "helping him to grow." Then we learn that Joni just turned 18, and will soon be leaving for college, causing Nic to croon "Big girl! Biiiiig girl!"

Laser wants Joni to get in contact with their sperm donor father, since he is too young to [although he seems every bit her age throughout the movie]. They are put in contact with Mark Ruffalo as Paul, who owns a resturant that is all organic with local food, and is having an affair with this model-type African-American with an enormous 'fro. He meets the kids and charms Joni, who was initially reluctant, but is resisted by Laser, who finds him too "into himself." But soon both kids are hanging out with Paul in their spare time.

Back at home, we have a scene in which Nic and Jules decide to fool around, which we are to understand hasn't happened in a while. This involves them watching gay porn while Jules gets under the covers, from which the gentle hum of a vibrator is heard. This is played for comedy, as is the risk that their kids will find out. Soon after Laser's friend is rifling through Moms' room, and they pop in the video, expecting lesbian porn. They are discovered watching it, and this lends evidence to Moms' suspicion that Laser is gay, and having an affair with his friend. It is soon discovered that his secrecy has been about meeting with Paul, knowing it would disturb his parents if they knew. But of course everyone is all open, respectful and understanding--aside from a ton of passive-aggression all around--and the mothers decide to invite Paul over for dinner.

Before dinner, Jules advises Nic to "go easy with the wine," and Nic says okay, "And you with the micromanaging." The dinner is awkward but fine, with Nic being cordial in a strained way, obviously deeply uncomfortable with his presence. Jules is starting a landscaping business, one of many business ventures we are told she has started, and Paul becomes her first client, hiring her to design his backyard. She accepts, which makes Nic even more uncomfortable. Now everyone is spending a lot of time with Paul, except for Nic.

So Jules is not long at Paul's before they share an impulsive kiss. That night, Nic asks "How'd it go at Paul's today?" and Jules jumps, "What do you mean?" Soon Jules and Paul are actually having sex, which includes some hilarious scenes with the contractor Jules has hired, who comes all the way in to the bedroom door just to tell her he's leaving for the day. Little events continue, including Nic blowing up at Paul for giving Joni a ride on his motorcycle, and Nic getting drunk and having a public meltdown in a restuarant with friends. Eventually Nic realizes she needs to give Paul a chance, and they decide to all have dinner at his house.

There, Nic connects with Paul--maybe a little too much--but this comes to an abrupt end when she uses the bathroom and discovers Jules' hair in the drain [he doesn't clean before guests come over?]. Soon after, the kids find out. Jules is now sleeping on the couch, Nic isn't speaking to her, and everyone hates Paul, who is devastated. He tries to re-establish relations with the kids, but Nic intercepts him finally and tells him to "get your own family," before slamming the door in his face. The film ends with a gesture of reconciliation between Nic and Jules, as Joni is dropped off at college.

There was a great deal that is very good about it. It's very light and funny, and nothing about the unconventional family or any of the relationships seems odd or rings false. It is very good about capturing the over-sensitivity and simmering passive-aggression familiar to many lesbian couples, but takes such a humorous distance on it that it doesn't cast blame or judgments. I saw this with a gay/lesbian group before its release, and everyone was laughing affectionately throughout. It is also to the film's credit that none of the permutations--either the lesbian parents or Jules' affair with Paul, or the women's watching gay male pornography--seem at all strange. And all of the performances are pitch-perfect. Moore and Bening inhabit their roles and one never feels the distance one sometimes does with straight actors playing gay. The kids are also convincing, especially Mia Wasikowska, who was the star of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. But although she was present throughout that movie, one never had the sense of whether she could act, whereas here she is poised and charming and never strikes a false note.

The only thing is, it just seems to kind of peter out at the end. Joni's going away to college is what the ending is shaped around, yet it wasn't given enough thematic weight throughout to really lend the feeling that a particular cycle has closed. And the resolution with Paul isn't shaped enough to feel like a statement has been delivered at the end--one has to put together afterward what the statement was SUPPOSED to be. One suspects that to Cholodenko, the very portrayal of this unconventional family and unvarnished display of their characters was enough, and the overall shape something that would take care of itself.

So looking back we can construct that Paul is supposed to be somewhat hedonist and unresponsible, drifting through life. We see him grow a bit throughout the movie--there is an important scene where he breaks up with his girlfriend because he wants to focus on starting a serious family. And Nic's final statement to him: "Get your own family," seems to sum up the view of the film toward him. Paul is irresponsible and deserves to be ejected because he drives a motorcycle and never settled down. Nic and Jules are responsible because they have kids and have created a home and family. So it's not really THAT far from traditional values, is it? In fact, ultimately it's the same argument straights have used against gays for some time: They are immature and irresponsible because they don't have the responsibility of caring for children. Only here the lesbians have adopted the "We're superior because we have the children" attitude, and it's the childless straight guy that is pushed out.

Which brings us to the issue of whether Paul really deserved the harsh treatment he gets. He has obviously been a positive influence on the kids, who grow quickly in the presence of someone who ISN'T quite so controlled and over-sensitive to every precious little emotional nuance and what it might mean decades from now. Laser ditches his irresponsible friend, and Joni is able to express her attraction to her friend and move it into a romantic relationship. Jules has now had some success in her business and feels more confident in her own abilities. So it strikes as a bit cruel and harsh when the film seems to support his complete and sudden ejection from their lives. Okay, maybe he's slightly less responsible from the "Family Values" viewpoint, but he has obviously grown and is a good friend and overall positive influence--now that they've gotten beyond the affair--and it just seems cruel, to the point where it distances one from the characters--when they just eject him so harshly, and blame HIM for all the problems that have emerged, while their own complicity remains unchallenged.

So while it's an excellent comedy and drama with numerous merits, and deserves much commendation for its portrayal of these relationships, a week later it leaves a slight trace of bitterness in the mouth. I think I might start snarkily referring to it as Kids Are Right.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, regardless of any of its small issues, it's still very much worth seeing.