Directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson
by Anthony Bryan
It’s got Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in it. What could go wrong?
Well, they play a married couple, married to each other. Of course they do – how else can you cast two middle-aged women in the lead?
And they’re sunshine-class Californian – obviously, they have to be, otherwise they’d spend most of the film being chased by pick-up trucks.
And they have two teenage kids. Just turned eighteen, ‘Joni’ (yup, named after Mitchell) and younger brother, ‘Laser’ (named after the nightclub in Stoke), who is at that age (fifteen) where he may be pining for a male father figure – as the opening scene telegraphs when we see him standing back while his meathead mate, Clay (named after raw earthy stuff that is easily malleable, sets really hard but usually ends up broken in bits) roughhouses with his dad.
And it just so happens that just turned eighteen Joni is now officially old enough to legally contact their sperm Donor Dad.
‘Donor Dad’, get past the seedy bit and it kind of sounds like a super hero ‘Donor Dad (comes) to the rescue…’ And, you know what? In a way he does. See, the ‘moms’, like any long-time married couple trying to keep it all together, are straining a bit: Nic (Bening), a Doctor and the main bread-winner, is struggling to accept that her neat family unit is going to fracture when Joni leaves for college in the Fall, while Jules (Moore), who has sacrificed her personal ambitions to be the stay-at-home mom, is now trying to build a new career, and grow her confidence, as a landscape gardener. So, right now, neither of the moms are a barrel of laughs.
But Donor Dad, Paul – when they finally track him down in a single phone call – is full of easy-going cool (and full of himself). He dropped out of school – ‘I’m a doer’ – but that’s ok because he has his own groovy restaurant, and grows his own organic produce. He’s really hands-on – gardening in the morning, manning front-of-house in the evening and filling in those split shifts by getting hands-on with his restaurant manager Tanya (Yaya DaCosta). What a guy. And, of course, he’s played by Mark Ruffalo. Who can do that easy smile, syncopated semi-mumble thing sooooo well. Hell, he could even charm a lesbian into some split shift action. You can see where this is going.
So on paper – director Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg wrote the script – there’s a lot to go wrong. There’s enough ropey stuff going on in ‘The Kids are All Right’ for the film to hang itself several times over. All it needs to do is push the same sex marriage comedy thing, get too heavy with the ‘modern’ versus ‘traditional’ family thing, or slide into the bottomless shitpit of modern middle-class mores. Easy. Getting the balance right, so your eyes don’t bleed, your brain doesn’t die and you don’t gag, that’s hard. Cholodenko pulls it off but, at times, it’s a close thing.
There’s the time when the ‘moms’, almost giddily, suspect Laser is ‘exploring’ with his meathead mate Clay – ‘I can’t believe you thought I was gay’ – oh how we laugh, instead of feeling patronised.
There’s the times that Jules falls back into the traditional comfort zone, and bed, of Paul – it seems kind of reasonable instead of a cheap stunt, and, frankly, insulting.
And there’s the time-warped 70s psychobabble – which you just kind of go with, instead of going out of the cinema.
To bound along this kind of tightrope, you’ve got to be fearless. The cast aren’t afraid to push as much, or as little, emotion out there as the scene needs. And Cholodenko isn’t afraid to give them the time and space to do it – the camera is happy to linger long after the script has played out.
It makes for tense viewing. There’s a dinner party turn-around scene where Nic and Paul duet Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’, over some rare Argentinean steak. It could, at a push, be tender. Halfway in it gets pretty raw, and by the end it’s a bloody mess that makes you feel squeamish and wrong. But then, as you’re trying to hold it all down, Nic makes a discovery, everything changes and we rejoin the dinner party from Nic’s, now poisoned, POV and get to feel sick in a good way – a right rhubarb crumble and custard walloping.
Despite the high wire act, ‘The Kids Are All Right’ is really just sauntering down the rather well worn path of ‘Gosh this marriage and family thing can be a bit tricky and messy’. And of course they’re right. It can. We know. Because we’ve seen it, lots of times, in MOR movies and, if we’re not careful, ‘moving’ TV dramas.
The skill is getting us to see it from a different vantage. At this level Jules can even stand up and do a tearful monologue on the subject, trotting out lines like, ‘Marriage is a marathon’ – and you take it on, you think about it, you’re even moved by it.
Just don’t look down, and you’ll be all right.