Kids Are All Right, The

But the parents are a mess

Main Cast: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson

Director: Lisa Cholodenko

One of the cruelest of human biological confluences is that of the rebellious teen and the parental mid-life crisis.  All that misplaced teenage bravado and independence colliding with the (hopefully temporary) decrease in parental self-image and confidence can create a tinderbox in any household.  All it needs is a tiny spark to become a full blown family crisis.  That’s exactly how things go in The Kids Are All Right, the spark in this case being sperm.  Who knew that semen could be so explosive?

We enter The Kids Are All Right as daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) is about to go away to college, having aced high school and been a good girl her whole life.  She isn’t really the rebellious type, but her brother Laser (that’s right – Laser, played by Josh Hutcherson) at fifteen is a more curious sort.  Now that his sister is eighteen and of legal age, he wants her to inquire about their biological father.  You see, they have the same father, but different mothers.  But the same mothers and no father.  No, wait – where was I again?

At first it is a little confusing, but we very soon discover that each child was borne by one of the two women who raised them as siblings – Joni by Nic (Annette Bening) and Laser by Jules (Julianne Moore).  Both pregnancies came about via donated sperm from the same man and the women have been happily married for many years.  Now the kids are out to find the anonymous donor.  Yikes – for all three parents.  The movie takes off from there and we walk through the mine-field of meeting the biological father (Mark Ruffalo) and the unfortunately coinciding mid-life crises of both mothers.

There’s a lot of Oscar buzz around The Kids Are All Right, especially for Annette Bening as Best Actress.  In some ways, I understand – the movie is entertaining and Bening does an extraordinary job with her portrayal of the “uptight” parent who is not at all comfortable with the situation.  In other ways, I think the movie itself is rather ordinary.  It’s coming of age for the kids, accepting that fact for the parents and the catalyst that brings all the angst to a head.  The only real difference between this an umpteen other movies exactly like it is the homosexuality of the parents and the big names playing those roles.  I have to wonder if the film itself would have been on anyone’s Oscar radar if everything was exactly the same except that Jules was a man played by, well, any man or if the lead women were unknowns.

Don’t get me wrong – I like the movie.  It’s entertaining and the changes the characters go through are both darkly funny and at times heartbreaking.  The cast has marvelous chemistry, the family dynamics in particular carrying a ring of adolescent/parent truth.  Bening nails the role of the primary breadwinner who drinks a little too much and is the designated family worrier.  She looks haggard and scared as she watches, helpless, as this new sperm donor person seems to take over her family.  While not quite as convincing, Moore is also good as the laid back parent who is trying to find her place in the world after years of raising children.  One issue I have with the character is the occasional waft of Moore’s hard Boston accent from her stint on 30 Rock.  I doubt it’s intentional, but both my son and I noticed it within the first fifteen minutes and we both found it distracting.  Ruffalo is charming as Paul The Donor – not quite knowing where he fits but finding this family somehow filling needs he didn’t know he had.  His character is a stark and intentional contrast to Nic and it works.

But my major question remains – why all the high accolades for what is really a pretty average movie?  Yes, it has one stellar performance.  But no, it isn’t an Oscar worthy film as a whole.  I’m glad Hollywood is seeing fit to portray more than a single type of family unit in their family dramedies, but that in itself is not an Oscar-worthy accomplishment.  In this case, I would say that some of the emphasis on gay/straight sex is gratuitous and doesn’t fit well with the characters as otherwise established.  It’s as if the filmmakers would like to show off how cool they are by having a gay sex scene.  Whoopee.  The same thing happens in I Love You Philip Morris, but with absolute knowledge that it’s gratuitous and reveling in every minute of its shock value.  At least in that case the filmmakers acknowledge exactly what they’re doing and go for broke with it.  Here is feels forced and fake and almost braggy, as if writer/director Lisa Cholodenko wants to shock the audience a little with her (frankly not shocking) sex scenes but then slap them on the hand and chastise them for being bigots because they notice.  It doesn’t work for me.

I guess overall I like The Kids Are All Right, but I’m not terribly fond of the people who made it.  I know that seems weird, but the performances and the true emotion of the situations are both touching and darkly funny.  Bening is worthy of an Oscar nod as she lets the weight of her situation and her age show on her face and in her bearing.  The entire family crisis in engaging and relatable, and will be especially so for parents of teenagers.  But the same sex union of the mothers needed to be just a fact, not a gimmick.  Yes, it’s an integral part of the plot, but to me it feels exploited to the detriment of the film as a whole.  Three and a half stars, rounded up on the strength of Bening’s performance.

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