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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Kids Are All Right (review)

Family Style

The kids are all right. The adults are pretty screwed up. Though not in a bad way — in a normal way, the way that comes from living a full, complicated adult life wherein you don’t always make the best decisions but don’t run away from the consequences. Wherein you make some damn good decisions and enjoy the happiness it brings until the bad decisions threaten to smack you and ask you, What were you thinking? and, indeed, you have to ask yourself, What was I thinking?

It’s all normal, that is. Like really, really normal and down to earth. And funny and smart and poignant and real and universal. It’s one of the best movies about family I’ve ever seen: what family means, what you do to keep it together, how the ups and downs of it can drive you crazy, how the warmth and love of it keep you sane.
It’s so family-positive that I’m sitting back now with my tub of popcorn to watch the so-called family-values crowd sputter and howl about it. Because the family here ain’t like anything Sarah Palin or Pat Robertson would approve of. Jules and Nic are — *lowers voice to a whisper* — lesbians. Uh-huh. As in Two Chicks. Been married for 20 years. Lovely Southern California suburban lifestyle, thanks to Nic’s (Annette Bening: The Women, Running with Scissors) being a doctor and all. Jules (Julianne Moore: Chloe, A Single Man) is still sorta trying to figure out what to do with her life, but Sarah Palin should identify with that; Jules has now hit on a notion of starting a landscape design company as a good opportunity to use her architecture degree, and she just bought a beater of truck to haul around her crap without even asking Nic. Domestic intrigue!

And the kids! Adorable. Joni (Mia Wasikowska: Alice in Wonderland, Amelia) is 18 and about to head off to college; she’s a tad shy and a bit introspective and hasn’t quite figured out the sex thing yet — it’s so nice to see a young woman onscreen who isn’t a rampaging sex maniac, and who is as equally tentative and reticent around a boy she likes as she is unafraid to take matters into her own hands when necessary. Laser (Josh Hutcherson: Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, Journey to the Center of the Earth) is 15, still having a little trouble determining who makes a good friend, but he’s bright and confident and open to learning. And still, the reason the kids are all right is because they haven’t quite started to live yet: things still look easy and choices still look obvious in their minds.

They’re all so damn ordinary, really, and nice and sweet and totally people you’d want to spend time with. And that’s what will infuriate some people: How dare Liberal Hollywood With Its Homosexual Agenda try to normalize regular people living regular lives. The horror!

Have I mentioned how much I love this movie?

The actual movie, however — you know, the complications and stuff that make up the plot — comes when Laser convinces Joni to get in touch with the sperm bank that got their Moms pregnant and find out who their father is. Joni can legally do that now that she’s 18, and even though it might be strange — “He might be weird. I mean, he donated sperm. That’s weird.” — Laser really wants to meet him. And he turns out to be a restaurant owner named Paul (Mark Ruffalo: Date Night, Shutter Island), who’s a little bit funky and a little bit cool and a little bit freaked out by meeting kids he didn’t know he had, but he quickly learns to love it, and insinuates himself into the family.

Except… insinuates makes it sound like Paul is being sneaky. He isn’t. His presence sets off all sorts of boat-rocking, though, between the Moms who are happy together but in a bit of a rut, and as a way for the kids — especially Joni, who seems young for her age — to assert their independence. And all the issues that the kitchen-sink agita raises will feel completely familiar to almost everyone: fears of growing up or growing old, fears of losing the people you love, fears of any kind of change in what has been comfortable and habitual.

Director Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon) — who wrote the script with Stuart Blumberg — has crafted a film that is honest and wise and marvelously entertaining all at once, and one full of performances that are simply breathtaking in how they hit every right note, and no wrong ones. The Kids Are All Right feels almost old-fashioned, in some ways — in the best kinds of ways — in how it mixes something close to screwball comedy with genuine emotion and passion. This is simply a great film, and not to be missed.


MPAA: rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some teen drug and alcohol use

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • JoshDM

    So it’s like the Anti-Grownups then?

  • Aaron

    SPOILER

    It may be a good movie, (I agree with your reviews quite often) But the lesbian sleeping with a man cliche is so extremely tired with me that it couldn’t help but knock several points off.

  • MaryAnn

    It works within the context of this story. Don’t let it deter you from seeing the film.

  • Sounds very cool. Thanks for the heads-up as always, MaryAnn!

  • Mimi

    Minor point, but the kid is named Laser? Do they manage to make you not go “huh?” every time someone says his name?

    Lasering aside, I’m looking forward to this one.

  • Jonah Falcon

    Note to Aaron: bisexuality exists.

  • Jonah Falcon

    Oh, an addendum: the writer/director is a lesbian.

  • Miguel

    But in films, lesbians are never ‘just lesbians’ and they’re likely to be bisexual. I don’t have a statistic, but it happens all the time. It’s like the film industry is saying ‘lesbians don’t exist, only bisexual women, or confused women who are just waiting for the right man’.
    and yes, I’ve seen this film and I know how it ends, but I do wonder, why did they need this case of infidelity with a man? The only explanation is that the plot needed THAT man to create further conflict within the family.

  • Aaron

    The issue Jonah, is not about bisexuality, but about the fact that countless TV shows and movies have a so called lesbian sleep with a man. You may be ignorant of this fact if you’re not of the community and that is excusable. But it is a real problem that many lesbians are very upset about. I know a lot of women who were looking forward to this film who now feel disrespected yet again.

    Cholodenko’s sexuality is not the point either. wasn’t there discussion on here recently about the horrible casting of “The Last Airbender”? Mary’s point was that even though Shyamalan is of Indian ethnicity that doesn’t stop him from internalizing the Hollywood ethos. Cholodenko has said that she was interested in capturing the attention of straight males in articles I’ve read and it seems to me one way to do that is to have your lesbian have sex with a man (in much more explicit detail then the the scene with the two women I should note).

    Now, the film is not bad, but that doesn’t mean this is not a problem with it. I mean, if “The Last Airbender” had gotten really good reviews, would that mean that Asians and natives didn’t have a legitimate complaint? No, they’d just have a even harder time getting anyone to listen.

  • MaryAnn

    SPOILERS

    I understand the complaints that some people have with this film, but I don’t think it’s quite analagous to the problems with *The Last Airbender.* There’s no good reason for how Shyamalan cast his film, but the situation in *Kids* does work within the context of the story. (Unless you want to say that there has *never ever* been a woman who identifies as lesbian who has slept with a man, which we all know would be a ridiculous thing to say.)

    There is no way in hell what happens in his movie can be interpreted as “It’s like the film industry is saying ‘lesbians don’t exist, only bisexual women, or confused women who are just waiting for the right man'” (though that is certainly applicable when it comes to some other movies). The Mark Ruffalo character here is not some random “right man” for the Julianne Moore character: there are very specific reasons why she is (temporarily) drawn to him, and *only* to him. The major one being that he is the father of her children, and she sees her children in them, and this creates a kind of intimacy from the very beginning.

    If you’re frustrated with Hollywood making complicated sexuality simplistic, then you should applaud this movie, because it doesn’t do that.

  • cwm

    The pattern to which Aaron is reacting: it’s not imaginary; we’ve all seen it. Particularly unsettling when Hollywood constructs “lesbians” whose presence is calculated to cater to men’s fantasies.

    Even so: rarely is it valid criticism, if you’re upset merely because a story’s characters are doing things which don’t suit your political leanings.

    Having attempted to write fiction, I had no patience for pressure from the more activist-inclined segment of the readership. Occasionally food for thought, but–in most instances–merely annoying.

    Their objections (“not what the community needs right now”) had no impact on what, ultimately, were creative decisions.

    If stories/films/etc. aren’t portraying what you’d most like to encounter, pick up a pen and make it happen.

  • Moe Murph

    I really loved “Laurel Canyon,” and “High Art” and was looking forward to this, but it left me with a feeling of suffocation and many questions and feelings of “ickiness.” Questions being:

    a.) Here is something to think about. If the couple were a straight male doctor (controlling, someone who had wanted a “wife,” and was given to needling his wife, with lines such as “I wanted you to feel better about yourself, dear…!”) would our poplular opinion of 2010 find it such a happy ending? When I compare this to “I Am Love” and the whole “Lady Chatterley” trope, I can just imagine an alternate movie, and the theme that Nic’s affair with the “fecund” other man was an act of “liberation” from the control of her husband. Just a skunk to drop into the garden party. (For what it’s worth, I’m a “girl”! Moe is short for Maureen – smile)

    b.) I thought Anthony Lane’s review put his finger on a subtle something not otherwise picked up on in the overwhelmingly positive critical glow for this film. What is it with these women’s pretentious dialog? As he noted, the script is spot on what was lampooned so long ago by Woody Allen, (new agey annoying babble) but does this filmmaker recognize this or is she playing is straight? Is this how lesbian couples communicate? Gaaack!

    c.) The repugnant treatment of the Mexican gardener. I’m a poet and would never demand every work of art have a political/cultural message (not everything has to be Orwell’s Animal House). But smack in the middle of 2010, with horrific unemployment and suffering that vibrates across the world, I was jarred to watch a movie in which a middle-aged working man is casually fired with a day’s notice, and slandered as a drug user. In addition, his allergies are treated as a joke…. don’t these pretentious bitches realize that there are folks working in pollen, and substances worse (asbestos, etc.) so they won’t starve?

    I am dismayed and fear the filmmaker, in her comfortable womb in artsy Laurel Canyon may not even “see” this. This is a little off point, but it reminds me of a short story draft I read once from a young (20-something) man I know. He sneeringly described in lurid physical detail the “ugly” “ropey” veins of an old coffee shop waitress in Vegas, with not an ounce of compassion or empathy for her humanity. I smelled a strong whiff of that here.

    Finally, at the end, with the “interloper” sent packing the nuclear family snaps back into place, the adulterous “wife” hopes for forgiveness and presumably sleeps on the couch a while longer, and all is right with the world. Reactionary and troubling. And so, so, so, far from the wild subversive energy that coursed through “Laurel Canyon” and “High Art.” Sigh.

    I am going to put this away and come back in 2025 (God willing) and see how this film “ages” in critical opinion.

  • amanohyo

    b) As a practitioner of New Agey, annoying babble (and Bananas/Annie Hall fan) I can say that I know lots of couples, straight and otherwise who talk like the people in this movie. Might not be the majority, but we’re out there.

    c) She does eventually feel bad about the gardener in the movie, and I think we are meant to see the firing (and drug implication) as repugnant, ignorant, and selfish in the context of the film. Also, I would sooo watch Orwell’s Animal House: “No animal shall wear clothes, unless it be a toga.”

    I thought the acting by the two leads was great, the dialogue was slightly above average, and the plot was meh (I agree that the end was too neat). It reminded me a lot of You Can Count on Me, and not only because Ruffalo plays a similar character. This is somewhat minor, but I appreciated that the movie showed sex as being both fun and funny. So many movies either take sex too seriously or use it as pure comic relief in a mean spirited way.

    It would have been nice to see a lesbian sex scene that was playful and fun and not male-gazy too, but then the complaint would be that the focus was on their sex life and not their famly life in general I suppose.

  • drewryce

    Orwells’ Animal House! LOL (choke) I love it!

    “If a window was broken or a drain was blocked up, someone was certain to say that Blutol had come in the night and done it, and when the key to Dean Wormer’s office was lost, the whole university was convinced that Bluto had thrown it down the well. Curiously enough, they went on believing this even after the mislaid key was found under a dead horse.”

  • Kate

    I’m coming in late on this — the film just arrived at our local theaters. While I really enjoyed the film (the performances, especially, were extraordinary), I was bothered (on many levels) by the rather contrived and predictable affair between sperm donor dad Paul and Julianne Moore’s character Jules. Not only has this become a cliche (as has been pointed out here), but it also reinforces the ridiculous idea that the presence of a penis makes any sex better (remember, during the only sex scene shown between the two moms, they are watching gay male porn and a vibrator is playing a major role).

    I really liked the Paul character — he was funny and real; yes, he was a bit of a playboy, but he was a nice playboy, and he seemed to really groove on the idea of having these two really cool kids. He got a bad rap there at the end of this film — basically, he was pushed out of this family that had become important to him and pretty much told he was unwanted and unnecessary. Julianne Moore bends over backwards apologizing for her behavior (which was absolutely reprehensible — she’s the one who cheated, not Paul), and in the end she is forgiven by her children and by her partner. The family bonds again and it’s all back to normal. But there is no resolution for Paul’s part of this story. He apologized, too, but he is not forgiven (nor is he given a chance to remain part of his children’s lives). And I’m not really sure why.

    I guess the message is that while a penis is essential to good sex, a man is totally unnecessary in the lives of his children. The relationship Paul develops with Laser and Joni is an important and endearing one (and the screenplay takes care to show that relationship developing). That he is left out in the cold at the end lessens the overall impact of the film.

  • rather contrived and predictable affair between sperm donor dad Paul and Julianne Moore’s character Jules. Not only has this become a cliche (as has been pointed out here), but it also reinforces the ridiculous idea that the presence of a penis makes any sex better (remember, during the only sex scene shown between the two moms, they are watching gay male porn and a vibrator is playing a major role).

    You’re projecting yourself onto the character so hard the celluloid is going to melt.

    She is not you.

    And NOWHERE is it even IMPLIED that just because he’s male he can “cure” her.

    And if you have an issue with the screenplay, take it up with Lisa Cholodenko, the writer/director, who is herself a lesbian.

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