What makes Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right remarkable also makes it a tad humdrum, which might be the filmmaker's point.
This is a movie about marriage, the kind we've seen many times, featuring family get-togethers, rebellious children, infidelity and the nagging question of whether sticking with one person for the rest of your life is worth it. The comparisons end there, and Cholodenko's casually expressed agenda begins.
The marriage in The Kids Are All Right is a same-sex union, with a pair of top-notch actors feigning lesbianism. Annette Bening is Nic, the high-strung, dominant half of the union. Julianne Moore plays Jules, the free-spirited, emotional yin to Nic's perpetually calculating yang. Replace either of them with a male actor and the script wouldn't change much — a measure of Cholodenko's opinion that marriage is marriage, no matter who's involved.
It's a commendable theme and somewhat brave in an era when gay and lesbian rights of marriage are hot-button political issues. Yet everything in The Kids Are All Right is soap opera, rather than soapbox lecturing. Everyone is quite comfortable with this family structure, even friends of Nic and Jules' teenage children, half-siblings because both women used artificial insemination to give birth.
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That fact opens the door to the third wheel: the sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who hasn't given his donation or the results any thought over two decades. His biological daughter, Joni (Mia Wasikowska, Alice in Wonderland), tracks down Paul as a favor to Laser (Union native Josh Hutcherson) before she leaves for college. Awkward introductions lead to meeting the "Momses," as the kids call their parents. Then things get sticky.
Nic immediately feels threatened by this "interloper," who impresses the kids with his motorcycle, organic restaurant and post-hippie personality. He is not what she has raised her children to be. Jules is closer in earthy spirit to Paul, who hires her to landscape his back yard. One thing leads to another, and soon Jules and Paul are enjoying terrific sex on the sly.
The affair is a juicy addition to the plot but also its downfall. The Kids Are All Right is better at demonstrating why its title is true than at driving a cultural wedge between them and their parents. It almost feels exploitative, and nothing else in the movie does. Make Paul a woman, and the dynamics of reconciliation could still be the same.
The performances are excellent. Moore and Bening each have showcase scenes that will make fine awards-show clips, and Ruffalo's scruffy sexiness makes Jules' infidelity somewhat understandable. Yet the affair also risks giving opponents of same-sex marriage a chance to crow, "I told you so." Nobody says that about a movie with a married businessman who's sleeping with his female secretary.