Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right was one of 2010’s most overwhelmingly well-received movies in terms of critical success. An unlikely summer release, it held its own amongst the usual blockbuster fare, managing to gross more than five times its reported four million dollar budget. There is considerable Oscar buzz surrounding the film, especially for its leading ladies Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. Now that it’s available on DVD, it will presumably find a wider audience.
Nic (Bening) and Jules (Moore) are a middle-aged lesbian couple raising two children. Nic is a doctor and a bit of a control freak. She views her somewhat flighty partner with a vague air of condescension. Jules hasn’t quite sorted out her life yet, struggling to decide what kind of career she would like to persue. This has led to some tension in the household.
Meanwhile, their children are becoming curious about the identity of their biological father. The sperm used to create them was sourced from the same anonymous donor. Nic is the biological mother of Joni (Mia Wasikowska), while Jules is the biological mother of Laser (Josh Hutcherson). When Joni turns eighteen, at the urging of fifteen year old Laser, she gets in touch with the people who can provide information about their father. They arrange to meet him without telling their mothers.
After revealing to their moms that they’ve met their father Paul (Mark Ruffalo), naturally they receive mixed reactions. Nic and Jules want to meet Paul, so a dinner is planned. Around this point in the story, things takes a decidedly abrupt turn. What started out as an exploration of how these teenagers are dealing with their unconventional family becomes something entirely different. And that’s where I believe Cholodenko, who co-wrote the screenplay with Stuart Blumberg, seriously falters.
In order to fully explain, I must divulge certain plot details that are best left unknown to the viewer. If you plan to watch The Kids Are All Right, I suggest not reading any further than this paragraph. The movie is worth seeing, if only for the strong performances. Bening and Moore really shine, creating full-blooded characters despite some shortcomings in the writing. Mark Ruffalo is also outstanding as a man coming to terms with some rather cavalier decisions he made in his youth. The dialogue is the consistently realistic, laced with witty observations.
Now for the problems (and again – accompanied by very big plot spoilers; you’ve been warned). Nic and Jules react very differently to Paul. Nic remains distanced and cautious, unsure about what level of influence she wants Paul to have on her children’s lives. Jules, who has recently decided to start a landscaping business, hits it off very well with Paul. He responds in kind, displaying an interest in her that Nic hasn’t had in years. Paul just so happens to need some landscaping done, so he offers the job to Jules. Shortly thereafter, Jules and Paul engage in a passionate affair.
No longer about the kids and their new relationship with their biological father, the movie turns into another story of infidelity. This could have been interesting if only the writers had explored why this lifelong lesbian throws herself so fully at a man. Jules and Nic have a few issues to work through as a couple, but there is no indication that their union is about to crumble. Yet Jules goes off the deep end, displaying a voracious appetite for aggressive heterosexual sex. Paul, in perhaps the film’s most fully realized character arc, discovers he has grown tired of endless flings. He genuinely wants to play a role in his children’s lives. And he’s also head over heels in love with Jules.
Forget about the lesbian aspect of the story momentarily. Nic is clearly the “man” of the house in a traditional sense, so imagine that this is a heterosexual couple who adopted a pair of siblings. The children seek out their biological parents. Their adoptive mother has an affair with her kids’ biological father, unknown to her devoted, loving husband. I wonder what the reaction would have been to the same story, only without the same-sex element. Would anyone not sympathize entirely with the jilted husband? He’s been depicted as an upstanding guy; an all-around intelligent, sensitive, and caring person.
I left The Kids Are All Right with the strong feeling that Cholodenko and Blumberg did not have a clear conception of the story they were trying to tell. It was too ambitious to tackle two big issues – not only the children with their biological father, but also the cheating spouse. Each of those issues deserved their own movie, or perhaps far more deft handling by the writers. Instead they’ve been crammed together, the first half of the story short-changed by the second and vice-versa.
I would guess Joni and Laser were left extremely confused and emotionally traumatized by the whole experience. I tried to imagine, for instance, how I would feel if my dad had an affair with another man. And once the whim had passed for him, expected my mother to welcome him back with open arms. No explanation offered for his sudden switch in sexual orientation. Being cheated on by your spouse is difficult enough as it is. But to suddenly have to question the most primal aspects of your relationship would be even more devastating.
The Kids Are All Right is a good conversation starter. It also would’ve made a great pilot episode to a potentially great television series. But as a stand-alone story, it feels woefully incomplete. Unfortunately the DVD’s skimpy supplemental features shed very little light on the filmmaker’s intent. Not that such features should be necessary; a well-told story doesn’t require further elaboration. But the director’s commentary and a couple of superficial featurettes aren’t really worth the time.