Ordinary People is the name of a 1980 movie about an upper-middle clear family in the Midwest. Nominated for all the major Academy Awards, it won several, including Best Picture. Robert Redford won as Best Director.
I mention Ordinary People because that could also be the title of Lisa Cholodenko’s new movie The Kids Are All Right. The people in The Kids Are All Right live in an ordinary house in an ordinary neighborhood. They wear ordinary clothes, and it’s disorienting to see such glamorous actresses as Annette Bening and Julianne Moore look so ordinary. Even their hair is ordinary.
In fact, you could say the ordinariness of the house, the clothing, and the hair is the point since Bening and Moore play lesbians. They play lesbians in a long-term committed relationship. Each of them has had a child by a sperm donor, and they are entering middle age, not very comfortably. They are also dealing with teenage angst, also not very comfortably.
They have the usual problems of potential alcoholism, and genuine infidelity. To be sure, the infidelity is all the more shocking, since Julianne Moore’s character has pretty vivid sex with the sperm donor himself.
The Kids Are All Right is an enjoyable movie, and I’m glad that I saw it, for multiple reasons. I would watch Bening and Moore in just about anything. My reservation about the movie is that it succeeds too well. It’s too ordinary.
Redford’s movie constantly plays on the contrast between appearance and reality. His movie gains dramatic power because things look ordinary, although they’re not. In The Kids Are All Right, things look ordinary, and in fact they are ordinary. The larger point is that lesbian marriages are a lot like straight marriages. “Marriage is hard,” Moore’s character says in her climatic speech.
More ordinary than anything else is the behavior of the teenagers, an 18-year-old girl played by Mia Gasikowska (you may remember her from Alice in Wonderland), and a 15-year-old boy played by Josh Hutcherson. The writing for their scenes didn’t work for me. I got tired of hearing Gasikowska’s character stomp around and declare, as though no one knew it, “I’m eighteen.” And Josh Hutcherson plays a slacker who is in fact pretty slack, even if he is a good basketball player.
The obvious comparison movie for The Kids Are All Right is Brokeback Mountain, which is a far better movie in large part because it has the great advantage of playing off the gay relationship against the still powerful myth of the heroic, i.e., straight, cowboy. It also has glorious photography of glorious scenery, the photography being an hommage to Ansel Adams.
So I would say that The Kids Are All Right is more historically important than dramatically powerful. I’m glad I saw it, glad that such wonderful actresses as Annette Benning and Julianne Moore agreed to play in it, and I’m glad that the suits who decide what gets made in Hollywood gave Lisa Cholodenko the money to make it. And I hope that those same suits gave Cholodenko the money to make her next movie, which will probably be extraordinary.