by KYW’s Bill Wine
It’s the way that our families drive us crazy but also manage to comfort us into thinking that everything will be all right that’s the crux of The Kids Are All Right.
Families, argues this witty, warmhearted winner of a comedy-drama, are families, their surface description notwithstanding. No matter how they’re configured, they challenge us.
This one, for example, consists for now of two moms, two teens, and one sperm donor.
Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play Nic and Jules, a middle-aged, married lesbian couple living in the Los Angeles suburbs with their two teenage kids, an 18-year-old daughter (Mia Wasikowska) and a 15-year-old son (Josh Hutcherson), both fathered by the same artificial insemination donor.
Nic is an accomplished physician, Jules a homemaker, ready — now that the kids are older — to find a new career path but frustrated in her attempts to do so.
Landscaping may be the way to go, and perhaps Nic can back Jules in setting up a modest business.
When the siblings, without telling their parents, track down and meet their biological father, Paul, an easygoing bachelor restaurateur and organic farmer played by Mark Ruffalo with sleepy charm, he begins bonding with nearly everyone in the household, in some expected ways and in some ways much more surprising.
And as the late-to-the-party interloper becomes more and more involved by insinuating himself, both openly and secretly, into this tightly knit nuclear family as an extended member with privileges, family life in this heretofore ordered home suddenly gets turned on its head.
Director Lisa Chodolenko (Laurel Canyon, High Art) concentrates on the traditional dynamics and tensions and values of the family — empty-nest fears, teen angst, sexual insecurity, emotional territoriality — so that they register as universals rather than as the atypical attributes of a modern “alternative” family.
This is, then, not a movie about how this family is unique, but about how surprisingly typical it is. Put another way, this family is imperfect in its own idiosyncratic way, but also in the same way that all families are.
Chodolenko’s low-key screenplay, which she co-wrote with Stuart Blumberg, is obviously and winningly fond of all its vivid characters. It gets its laughs without straining for farcical effect and earns its tears without betraying the authenticity of the characters.
And the stellar cast has been assigned the kind of natural-sounding, insightful dialogue that allows us to get to know their characters up close and personal as they argue and finesse and negotiate in a way that demonstrates, reveals, and articulates their flaws and strengths.
The whole ensemble is fine in this actors’ showcase full of lived-in portrayals, but the dependable Bening is especially brilliant. Her nuanced reading of a loving mate and mother, a responsible, breadwinning OB-GYN, and a card-carrying control freak who feels threatened, invaded, and betrayed is a marvel of tiny, revealing gestures and precise line readings.
So we’ll donate 3 stars out of 4 for the smart, resonant, and bracingly entertaining R-rated dramedy about the simultaneous difficulty and sturdiness of marriage and family life, The Kids Are All Right, as touching as it is funny and as radical as it is conservative.
Kids of all ages, this one’s more than all right.