The Kids Are All Right (2010) – Oscars in review
Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as lesbian moms, Mark Ruffalo as Mark Ruffalo. Here’s the penultimate entry in my round-up of this year’s Best Picture nominees.
The Kids Are All Right
(Lisa Cholodenko, US, 2010)
Cholodenko’s gender-bending deconstruction of ‘quirky indie’ logic struggles to convince as a story, but offers real emotional insight thanks to great casting
To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy families are dull, so bring on the dramatic fireworks. That’s a maxim that’s held true in movies for years, but even the unhappy families start to get a bit samey after a while. Which is why independent cinema invented a third category: the quirky family. From The Royal Tenenbaums to Little Miss Sunshine, these guys are neither blissfully content nor drowning in despair. They are, in short, All Right.
Lisa Cholodenko’s movie is almost a test case in the virtues and vices of this subgenre. The starting point – lesbian moms with teenage kids – would be enough of a draw for most directors, but Cholodenko, herself a lesbian and so wary of making sexual orientation the quirk, needs another angle. She finds it in the arrival of the family’s ghost member: the sperm donor who became the kids’ biological father without so much as a say-so. With the women themselves locked into ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ archetypes, “Dad’s” arrival shifts the dynamic in dramatic and unorthodox ways, prising open regrets and recriminations.
At its best, this is a satire not only of the nuclear family but the on-screen indie family. Mark Ruffalo’s motorbike-riding, organic-restaurant-owning Paul is the kind of anarchic hipster who so often appears in these films to connect with the kids and help them grow, or to create tension among the parents. But here, he’s also – kinda, sorta – a parent himself, allowing Cholodenko to raise awkward questions about gender and parental roles, and the tussle between nature and nurture. This is especially true of Annette Bening’s Nic, who as breadwinner and stern authority figure is the ‘Dad’ being supplanted by a rival who is both cooler and more traditional as a father figure…and yet, that leaves only limited space for the position of ‘Mom,’ which Julianne Moore’s Jules seems better qualified for.
“What saves The Kids Are All Right is exceptional casting…”
There is, however, a problem: little here rings true. The characters are exceptionally well observed…but as soon as plot mechanics kick in, they start to act like ciphers. Possibly this in itself is part of the joke about families being inherently conformist systems; if so, it’s too sophisticated for me. Knowing that Cholodenko knows this world doesn’t make it any easier to swallow much of the characters’ behaviour or motivation. Do lesbians really watch gay male porn?
What saves the film is exceptional casting, which has zeroed on three brilliant actors for the lead roles to the point where subtexts escape from the contrivance anyway. Hard as nails Bening, flighty/flirty Moore, and stoned slacker Ruffalo – all three can do this in their sleep. But, as if they’re unhappy to have arrived at Typecasting Anonymous and so made a pact to stretch themselves, all three start to play with the personas to reveal those nagging emotional truths that Cholodenko is reaching for. Better still, the kids themselves are more than All Right: sharp, solid Mia Wasikowska is a world away from drippy Alice in Wonderland, while Josh Hutcherson is the most convincing screen teen in years, devoid of wisecracks but instead driven to quiet solitude by confusion and embarrassment over his parents’ unusual threeway.