Walking away from Lisa Cholodenko’s latest effort, the curiously titled The Kids Are All Right, I felt myself being pulled in multiple directions by its varying incongruities and opaque intentions. This is a confused film, a film unsure of exactly whose story it wants to tell and greatly confused over the message it’s supposed to convey to its audience. The end result is disappointing and frustratingly pleased with itself, which is not to say that the film has no merits worth smiling about but instead that in light of how much Cholodenko’s picture misses the mark, that sense of self-satisfaction feels totally unearned.
The Kids Are All Right inserts us into the home life of the Allgoods, comprised of dual matriarchs Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) and their two children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), and portrays how their family dynamic shifts in reaction to the introduction of Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the anonymous sperm donor both women used to conceive their children. The mothers are threatened, feeling that Paul’s presence in their lives could undermine their relationship to their children; alternately, Joni is enamored by Paul’s lifestyle and attitude while Laser feels happy to have some form of male role model in his life. From a distance, this seems like a good deal for both of them.
But that doesn’t really matter, because despite the name of the film their story isn’t central to the plot. In fact, if you excise Joni and Laser as characters from every part of the picture beyond the first forty five minutes– in which they are crucial, because they’re the ones whose efforts visit Paul upon their family unit– the movie doesn’t change a whole lot. This is because The Kids Are All Right is actually about Nic’s and Jules’ stale relationship and can be characterized as a more straightforward marital drama than anything else; the film comes to revolve around their ailing marriage, as Nic, the breadwinner, doesn’t show her full appreciation for Jules, the housewife, who in turn impulsively has an affair with Paul. And ultimately, that’s the film’s downfall, because in honing in on the love triangle between Nic, Jules, and Paul, the film shapes into something withered and bland.
As a rule I do not advocate criticizing films for what they are not, but Cholodenko sets the movie up to tell Laser’s and Joni’s stories and fully examine how the emergence of Paul impacts their lives and the lives of their parents. She switches gears about halfway through, though, and she does so after laying the groundwork for a more insightful film in which we see how meeting the man who helped contribute to their conception changes their lives. It’s not that we don’t see his influence in Joni and Laser at all, it’s that Paul’s relationship with the kids is treated as secondary to the tawdry melodrama between the adults and that lack of development turns the film into a flat and lifeless “trouble in the suburbs” dramafest, American Beauty with lesbians. Based on Cholodenko’s own narrative choices the kids should be the film’s foremost concern, and yet they only get as much attention as the average subplot might.
Maybe Cholodenko really doesn’t have that much interest in Joni’s and Laser’s stories, which is totally her prerogative. But a depiction of marital disintegration, even when that marriage is between two women who find their bond endangered by a straight male figure, isn’t fresh or especially inspired; it’s the director’s job to give us a reason to really care about the particular marriage being portrayed. Frankly, Cholodenko seems to be riding on the obvious disparity between the couple of her own story and the couples of stories that fall within the same milieu to make her film stand out from those of her peers. But ultimately, Nic and Jules could easily have been a straight couple without changing the essentials of their drama; they lack any distinct character traits and behaviors that make them unique and worthy of our renewed attentions.
I want to praise Cholodenko’s choice to feature a homosexual couple playing the role of the parents rather than the traditional heterosexual couples that constitute the norm for this particular genre. I really do. In her decision to observe the home life of a family headed by a same-sex couple she clearly intends to highlight the simple, plain truth that such a household is no different at its core than one in which the parental figures are opposite genders; it’s a modern message that I wholeheartedly support, even if I would have liked to have seen the film examine and embrace what makes Nic and Jules different from Dick and Jane. That said I can’t really give the filmmaker a whole lot of credit for figuring out how to make that choice matter when it absolutely must. If the substance is lacking, though, at least the spirit is tangible.
I think that for all of the flaws I found in The Kids Are All Right‘s structure and narrative, I could have enjoyed the movie had the acting been consistently top notch across the board, but I can’t wrap my head around Annette Bening’s Oscar nomination. When Julianne Moore spends every second she’s on screen acting circles around both her adult co-stars, the fact that she couldn’t secure a nomination at all is practically unfathomable when Bening, put bluntly, is such a bore (and Ruffalo is sleepwalking until the last act); there’s nothing natural about her performance, and no emotion that makes her character truly palatable. Meanwhile, Moore invests her livelihood in each of her moments in front of the camera and translates what drives and moves her character to her audience. Her sense of loneliness and her feelings of being unappreciated read– both emotions are clearly worn on the actress’ sleeve. In a movie where there should be no sides taken, feeling compassion for Jules even after she hops in the sack with Paul is almost automatic. Moore has long been a reliable performer and expectedly, she brings a lot of verve and poignancy to the proceedings here. And along with Moore, the kids fare well; both Wasikowska and Hutcherson continue to prove themselves as up and coming young performers, successfully forging the brother/sister dynamic and making for satisfactorily difficult and defiant teenagers, but neither gets the screen time they deserve.
The Kids Are All Right is disappointing. It’s not bad, only very much mishandled and misguided and not enough of either to send the entire film up in flames. But it’s not particularly good, either, outside of a few bright spots seen here and there in the casting, and maybe the worst thing that can be said about a work of art is something neutral. If Cholodenko had made a true disaster, then at least it would have elicited a strong reaction from me, which is preferable to a lukewarm response, the verbal equivalent of casually shrugging one’s shoulders. But apart from being somewhat baffling, the film feels somewhat light and listless when it could have been socially conscious and topical art worth arguing over. I admire Cholodenko’s effort, but everything she does here sadly adds up to a missed opportunity that she should have been able to strike gold with.