What makes The Kids Are All Right such a special movie are the details. Director Lisa Cholodenko, who wrote the script with Stuart Blumberg, has an impressive knack for knowing how to indicate character and story with the tiniest gestures and visual cues, sometimes giving important moments just a brief second of screen time, which is always just enough to register. It’s a technique of discovery, which pays off so well in this movie that I’d almost rather you go see the movie right now, before I or anyone else over-describe it to you. But what the hell, since you’re obviously still reading, I’ll keep working to convince you…
I’d heard the name Lisa Cholodenko before, in conjunction with the well-received indies High Art and Laurel Canyon. Apparently she’s made other movies, along with having directed for TV such as Homicide. I hadn’t seen any of her work before now, though, and now I feel a little like I’ve been missing out. I did actually recognize Stuart Blumberg’s name too – he wrote Edward Norton’s movie Keeping The Faith, which I remember really liking (even if I also remember it as too long for a romantic comedy.)
Between the two of them they have come up with a story that is obviously compelling on the page, since it attracted such top-quality talent, but it must also have been a subtle script, since it is certainly a subtle movie. That’s what makes it a nice break from the kinds of movies I usually watch. The Kids Are All Right is a modest movie, compared to the giants of summer, but a consistently rewarding one. It’s about people, who may not exactly be like people we know, but who are recognizably flawed, inconsistent, and sloppy, the way real people are.
Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play Jules and Nic, a middle-aged couple who have two teenaged kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). That’s right, I said “couple” – this is 2010, okay? Personally, I was more distracted by the fact that they named their kids Joni and Laser. Anyway, Jules and Nic have a comfortable, almost envious domestic life – they’re one of the seemingly more contented married couples I’ve seen on screen in a while, even though of course there are differences between them. Still, happy home life or not, the kids are curious about where they came from, so when Joni turns eighteen, she follows through with her brother’s desire to track down the sperm donor who was an anonymous factor in their origins.
That guy turns out to be Paul, a happily single forty-something who runs a trendy restaurant in the Silver Lake/ Echo Park area. Paul occasionally hooks up with the incredibly smoking hot black chick (sorry, I’m a guy) who hosts at his restaurant, but doesn’t otherwise show the faintest consideration towards the kind of domestic situation that Jules and Nic maintain. Naturally, that changes when the kids track him down and they begin to get close. Paul is played by Mark Ruffalo, an actor who can be amazingly sensitive (in the way that you’re hoping that he can happily co-exist as part of the kids’ lives), and also appealingly rogue-ish (as in Collateral or The Brothers Bloom), which is his character’s de facto state of being here.
I really do need to stop after that preliminary set-up, because like another movie I recently saw, Cyrus, this movie really is about the discovery more than the high-concept. Even when the story reaches the occasional buoy of standard movie/TV comedic incident, the way that Cholodenko’s direction captures these moments is full of rich character work, and the way that these moments play out is never quite the way you expect. There are moments of high emotion in The Kids Are All Right, but just as often the story is being relayed in a glance, or a brush against a forearm, or an extra beat held on the image of a peripheral character. Sometimes it’s the tiniest details that matter just as much as the major traumas and touchstones, just as it is in real life.
The other major strength of The Kids Are All Right is the fact that it is cast absolutely perfectly. Annette Bening (an actress who doesn’t seem to work nearly often enough) takes on the most thankless character, in a way, since Jules is a hardworking alpha type who has to reign in the other characters, but somehow I found her to be the most relatable one. She knows what she wants out of life, and she’s trying to do her best for herself and her wife and kids, but life gets in the way of life. That’s the way it goes. Julianne Moore, meanwhile, is really beyond compare – she’s the more outwardly emotional one, which means that she drives most of the story’s emotional moments, and nobody can get to you quite like Julianne Moore. This is the Julianne Moore of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, the livewire heart of the movie, and she gets a moment in this newer movie that had this tough bastard of yours find himself with a brief welling in the corner of the right eye.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a fairly light-hearted movie, where even the more dramatic moments are played with humor. It only gets affecting by the end because you feel like you know these characters, and you understand what they’re feeling and even care about it. But overall, The Kids Are All Right is much funnier than I expected it would be. Plenty of that is Mark Ruffalo’s doing – the way that he plays the happy wanderer, the intruder into this unconventional family, is unpredictable and fun. His character is a rogue, but he’s charming, even when he’s disappointing. Honestly, watching this movie made me hope that the rumors of Ruffalo taking on the role of the Incredible Hulk in the upcoming Avengers movie don’t come to pass – this guy is way too good at playing three-dimensional people onscreen. I’m not sure it’s the best use of his time to be wrapped up in movies where you have to put on glasses to pretend like you’re getting a third dimension. And I’m a Hulk fan! That’s just a measure of how good Ruffalo is in this movie.
The characters who stay with you the most, though, even they get less of the screen time, are the kids. I wasn’t too impressed with Mia Wasikowska in the Tim Burton Alice In Wonderland, but she’s given much more to play with here. She has a great grave maturity, in the way that kids sometimes have to be when caught in the midst of misbehaving adults, but she also captures the confusion of a kid caught up in a complicated parental situation, and the sadness of a kid in transition from high school to college. Josh Hutcherson is equally good, though he gets the least dialogue, since as a typical teenage boy he’s not very talkative when grown-ups are around. In this movie, though, his terse behavior feels like both a defense mechanism and the smart move. It’s smart writing and it’s well-played. Likable kid, especially for a kid named Laser.
That’s what this movie does; it makes you like and care about people who if it were a different movie you might be predisposed to judge. There are no villains here; everybody has their moments of bad behavior (some worse than others), but no one is actively looking to harm anyone else. In fact, there’s a lot of genuine love mixed up in that misbehavior. The Kids Are All Right seems to have a hopeful attitude towards its characters. They might be mixed-up, but they’re trying, and as long as they just keep loving each other, maybe they’ll stay able to turn out okay in the end.