The joy of The Kids Are All Right is that it bucks convention in the most unexpected ways. For example, director Lisa Cholodenko (who co-wrote with Stuart Blumberg) absolutely refuses to let her movie about love and humor become a formulaic romantic comedy. Characters in lower-grade fare have emotion thrust upon them and act out only because the script says they should, e.g., when a vapid teen pines for her pale and possibly sparkly boyfriend only to randomly reject his advances. But the relationship at the center of Kids is packed with honest, warm moments of real humanity in which one partner reaches out to the other, not in fear or anger or mere lust but because they honestly want to. There’s a sense not just of togetherness but absolute necessity, and it comes from the dialogue and direction and wonderful performances by the two leads, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. Which is where the film’s other strength makes itself known: Bening and Moore play a married lesbian couple with two teenage kids conceived through a sperm donor, and the circumstances of their life are treated as blessedly normal. Their gayness isn’t a shouting distraction, nor is it played down for some attempt at universality that critics hung like a ghostly weight around Brokeback Mountain. This is simply the way things are, and it’s refreshing for a gay relationship to be treated with the honesty and normalcy of a straight one in film. Cholodenko’s film isn’t without some fits and starts, but when she winds her way back to the couple at its core, she always manages to create something wonderful.
The film is designed to be an intense study of a relationship, so the plot is reverse-engineered from Cholodenko’s main desire to explore her lovers under stress. This isn’t necessarily bad — it’s pretty much how stories get written — but the problem is that some of the methods the director uses to get there become obviously disposable when she just lets them drift away. For instance, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the donor, is going to be the catalyst for strife and change between Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening), but Cholodenko doesn’t quite know how to get him into the picture organically, so the couple’s younger child, 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson), has the older one, college-bound Joni (Mia Wasikowska), call the sperm bank to get Paul’s info because he wants to meet Paul and see what he’s like. There’s definitely a subplot waiting to be unearthed about the young male in a house of women growing curious about his father, but it’s not so much abandoned as it is allowed to easily dissolve. Laser — pronounced “lazer,” named so for reasons left to your imagination — is the character that sets everything in motion, yet he’s the one that winds up spending the least amount of time with Paul throughout the film.
Once Paul’s in, though, Cholodenko’s back on solid ground, stitching together a compelling story and doing it well. Paul, a free spirit, runs a restaurant and screws anything that walks by, which puts his personality closer to Jules, a pleasant, aging hippie who’s never quite found a career, than Nic, a doctor often willing to let work intrude on family time. Joni and Laser meet up with Paul on the sly and then announce to Nic and Jules they want to have him over for dinner, and the dinner scene is the first of many wonderfully written set pieces that go on longer than you’d expect and really allow the characters to interact. Instead of spacing out small scenes in which relationships showed slight but predictable tilts, Cholodenko lets the natural ebb and flow of long conversation create mercurial shifts in emotion around the table. The gorgeous cinematography by Igor Jadue-Lillo captures a cool, garden-like Los Angeles that exists only in well-meaning movies, and Cholodenko keeps the camera slowly gliding among the characters like an unseen dinner guest. She uses the rhythm and length of the scene to draw you in, and it’s a pleasure.
As Paul spends more time with the family — Joni is taken with him for a while, and he hires Jules to renovate his garden as a way to help jump-start her new business — Cholodenko creates a fantastic tension between the three adult characters. Like this year’s Cyrus, The Kids Are All Right is about an unconventional love triangle in which emotional dependence and competition for space are as potent as sexual energy, and Jules, Nic, and Paul constantly circle each other as they move from uneasy acquaintances to something much more complicated. Paul is the physical focus of all the change Jules and Nic are dealing with, from Joni’s impending departure to their own relationship struggles, and any good he brings to their lives will have to have ramifications that are significantly less than beneficial. The film works so well because Bening, Moore, and Ruffalo are never less than fantastic, and they’re all committed to creating nuanced, delicate portraits of real people. The lived-in chemistry between Jules and Nic is palpable, and some of the simple speeches between them about the nature of love are the most heartbreaking and true you will hear in a film. At every turn, Cholodenko refuses easy answers or melodramatic fixes. Her words have the broken, yearning beats of everyday people, and her situations are laced with the kind of drama that makes our own lives feel so confusing and blind sometimes. But she’s also written a seriously funny movie, one that finds punch lines in real situations and that uses the uniqueness of the situation as fuel without ever pandering to it. (One of the best lines is toss-off from Joni that Laser’s actions “might hurt Moms’ feelings.”) There’s less a feeling that she sat down to crank out some jokes and more the sense that she simply decided to tell a real story and mine it for all its humor and heart.
It’s in those moments that evoke both emotions that The Kids Are All Right hits with all its force. Cholodenko’s screenplay ultimately deals with the voluntary nature of family, and how every relationship, whether it’s spousal or familial, eventually comes down to the choice to be in it. Joni’s eagerness to fly the coop is predictable for a teen her age, but there’s a moment when she’s all shipped off to school that she worries that her family has left her, not for good, but before she was ready. (Wasikowska is amazing in the moment, too.) But then, around the corner, they reappear, and for a minute things return to normal. Cholodenko’s film is about building a family that will come back when you call it, even when you didn’t know you wanted to.