Laser (no, really) and Joni are the children of Nic and Jules. “Nic” without the “k” is because Nic and Jules are both female. The mothers visited a sperm bank a bunch of years ago, carefully selected Paul as their donor, and each used artificial insemination to give birth to a boy, now 15, and a girl, now 18. The half-brother and sister live with their lesbian parents in a rather stable, California household.
Joni (Mia Wasikowska) is about to leave for college at about the same time Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is experiencing some identity and behavior crossroads. His best friend experiments with drugs, shows some cruel tendencies to animals, and wants to watch some gay porn with Laser. At the same time, Nic and Jules are bickering more than most couples. Nic (Annette Bening) is a doctor, somewhat of a control-freak with a habit of sharp remarks towards her partner in front of the children. Jules (Julianne Moore) has had various careers and is now embarking on a new venture with design landscape. Her more earthy, forgiving style with the kids is annoying Nic, and their relationship is slightly suffering. All this has left Laser feeling that something is missing, and he thinks perhaps meeting his biological father might help.
Paul (Mark Ruffalo) runs a local restaurant at which he serves his own organically-grown vegetables. He rides a motorcycle and balances more than one “friend with benefits,” who each seem to be aware, accepting, and understanding that they are not the only women in his life. When the sperm bank informs him that Joni and Laser want to meet him, he is first surprised he actually “fathered” anyone, and then – in his “yeah, sure, cool, whatever, like okay” style – he agrees to meet them. Mothers Nic and Jules, however, are unaware.
The Kids Are All Right (Nominated for Best Picture, 2010) is not a film with a traditional plot or conflict but instead poses an interesting set of circumstances in which different attitudes and cultures come into contact – both physically and emotionally – and the pieces just fall where they may. Although Laser wanted and Joni resisted meeting Paul, it’s Joni who more easily bonds with him, leaving Laser still unsure of his past, his present, and his future. Instead of watching a structured plot of a story, we are instead watching various colors of marbles rolling around inside a bowl, bouncing off each other in random directions, but that’s not a bad thing.
Nic has some strict rules, such as nobody ever gets on a motorcycle, due to the intense injuries she has seen from such things working in a hospital. One marble collision is when Joni willingly and happily accepts a ride on Paul’s motorcycle, thus angering Nic and thus causing Joni to play the “I’m 18, I can do what I want” card. Not usually a good idea. Paul hires Jules to landscape his yard. It is great physical work for Jules. We had previously seen that Jules is the, er, um “giver” in her physical relationship with Nic. But after all that time “giving,” she needs to “receive” something, and Paul obliges. More marbles colliding. The kids start spending more time with Paul than they do their own parents. More marbles colliding.
The Kids Are All Right, written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg and nominated for Best Original Screenplay, is a pleasant examination of lives, choices, reactions, and consequences. Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon, The L-Word), also directing, made certain there is not one moment of judgment of homosexual relationships, their lifestyle, or gay parents. Luckily, there are no neighbors who ignore them in the supermarket, classmates who laugh at them in school, or any other clichés. Nic and Jules are treated no differently than if they were Nicholas and Julie, which is a good thing, but I have my suspicion that there is an underlying reason why it was necessary for them to be a lesbian couple. Revealing that would be a spoiler – so for the sake of a discussion with those who may have already seen the film, I will mention that after the trailer at the end of the review.
Annette Bening (The American President, The Grifters) plays well as the colder, more calculated one. Nic is stressed, and Bening brings that out in her quivering voice, which wavers from squeaky to deep and back again, which likely helped her nomination for Best Actress in a Lead Role. Julianne Moore (Crazy Stupid Love, Children of Men) with longer hair but without bra, is more than acceptable as the “earthy” one, spending more time with the kids while Nic’s nerves are shot from long hospital hours. Ruffalo (The Avengers, Shutter Island), with his messed hair, three-day stubble, and three-second mumbling delay before delivering his lines, is standard and believable as a “whatever dude” farmer and business owner. He is spontaneous but not careless, nor what his nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. He genuinely feels for the kids, which is what leads to even greater marble collisions as the story progresses.
Wasakowski (Alice in Wonderland, Stoker) is reminiscent of Martha Plimpton, growing more attractive and in control with time. Hutcherson (The Hunger Games, Bridge to Terabithia) often has a narrow-eyed expression that forces you to figure out if he’s angry, confused, or ambivalent, and all are by design for Laser. Ironic that his name is for a focused point of light while he is the least focused and with the heaviest of confusion of everyone.
The Kids Are All Right likely won’t appeal much to a younger crowd, but it’s good to see a film that has good (but not stereotypical) characters who face unique circumstances. It’s also good to see a film without shootouts, explosions, robots, and monsters. You won’t fall in love with it, but you also won’t be disappointed when you’re searching through Netflix on a quiet Sunday night.
The Good: Paul trying to do “right”
The Bad: Nic and Jules, doing different “wrongs” in Paul’s house
The Ugly: The results of the “wrongs”
About that hint at something that involved a spoiler – Cholodenko has shown her interest in expressing stories of alternative lifestyles in Laurel Canyon, The L-Word, and High Art, so it seems like a no-brainer that she would choose a lesbian couple in The Kids Are All Right. However, there’s an extra step involved. Nic eventually learns that Jules has been in Paul’s bed. For most married couples, that would spell “The End,” but the writers needed this couple to stay together. In my simple speculation, a lesbian couple is more likely to stay together because Paul, being male, is not as much of a threat to the relationship as he would be if Nic were also male. That, more than simply reminding us that “gays are people too,” may have had more to do with the choice of Nic and Jules instead of Nicholas and Julie.