For a film about family, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right effectively twists the dynamics in ways both obvious and subtle. As a long-together lesbian couple, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) have achieved a degree of domestic perfection that defies convention by being utterly conventional in its own way. They have each given birth to a beautiful child: Nic, the practical provider, is the birth mother of Joni (Mia Wasikowska), a National Merit scholar on her way to college at the end of summer, while Jules mother-hens over Laser (Josh Hutcherson), a sensitive athlete who is vaguely curious about his surrogate father.
Said sperm donor, the free-spirited Paul (Mark Ruffalo), is the father of both kids, and it falls to Joni, the older of the two, to make the first contact with him for Laser. It’s that first connection, though, that illuminates the far more subtle dynamic breakdown that makes Cholodenko’s film something truly special, because once Paul expands the bonds and relationships, we come to realize that this unconventional family lacks a meaningful adult presence.
Nic, Jules and Paul are technically grown-ups, but each of them wanders around in a comfortable state of arrested development. Nic, the most mature seeming of the three, is the breadwinner of the nuclear family, but Bening, on quite a role following up her strong performance in Mother and Child, presents the portrait of a character play-acting through a role that doesn’t fit any easy social category. Nic, with that gender-signifying appellation, settles into being the paternal matriarch to such an extent that she becomes the fighter when the family unit is threatened.
She wears the pants, but we catch glimpses of how ill-fitting the role is for her.
Bening makes Nic the most compelling and complex character, mainly because we can recognize her immaturity and her efforts to mask it. Which is more than we get from either Jules or Paul, both of whom are allowed to act out a bit more freely, which Moore and Ruffalo can do in their sleep.
Laser and Joni are the ones we are supposed to worry about the most; they are the children caught up in the social unconventionality of the decisions of the adults who spawned them. It’s curious to watch these two kids, and in particular Wasikowska and Cincinnati native Hutcherson playing them, because they are the drama-free anchors in the narrative.
Joni has a smart independence that never feels overly scripted or based on a overly aware acting presence. Her self-assurance stems quite naturally from her careful observation of the politically correct progressiveness around her and the promiscuous rebellion against it that exists in her peers. Joni, and by extension Wasikowska, has simply found the middle path and avoided the resistance on either side, for the most part.
Wasikowska’s work here stands in stark contrast to her breakthrough turn in the first season of the HBO series In Treatment, where she played an overwrought teen gymnast caught in a tidal wave of teen angst that threatened to capsize both her character and the entire show. In Kids, she reins it all in and takes an assured step on the path to maturity.
But it’s Hutcherson who really comes into his own — although his Laser is less able to express himself. During a dinner exchange late in the film, his mother Jules bemoans the fact that he’s not gay, because he would ideally be “more sensitive.” But what she’s really getting at is not his level of sensitivity but rather his ability to articulate his feelings. Laser’s intuitive need to meet Paul is the incident that triggers the whole affair, and the awkward questions he asks Paul (about donating sperm) and his mothers (about their interest in gay male porn) forces them to confront and explain their own unexplored feelings and identities.
Beyond the scripted words, Hutcherson perfectly conveys the unease of a young boy on the verge of manhood in such uncharted social and personal territory. It is a huge step for a child actor known primarily for his appearances in mainstream family-friendly fare.
But what comes through most is not only that they are all kids in terms of how they react from a place that is more driven by thoughtless selfishness but also that as their actions cause harm to the various individual bonds that connect them, we see that they will all be all right as they learn from this situation.
Maturity is not a process that ends when one turns 18 or on a graduation day or when one is able to start and nurture a family. Maturation is life-long, and hopefully we, like the characters here, all make it through just fine. Grade: A
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