Movie lesbians have come a long way since Shirley MacLaine committed suicide over Audrey Hepburn in The Children’s Hour. Now we have Annette Bening married to Julianne Moore in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, with two teenage children and a pickup truck. They’re not perfect parents and this is not a perfect movie, but boy does it vibrate. No pun intended.
Nic (the enchanting Ms. Bening) is obviously the man of the house, a no-nonsense Los Angeles doctor with baggy sweaters, chopped-off hair and an aggressive swagger who has been married to her partner, Jules (Ms. Moore), the feminine, flame-haired homemaker in the family, for nearly 20 years. Their healthy, intelligent and well-adjusted kids are 15-year-old son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and 18-year-old daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska), who have no problem whatsoever being raised by two “moms” who were both artificially inseminated by the same sperm donor. (This is the nonjudgmental new world where kids adjust faster than adults to everything from new-fangled technology to same-sex marriage, and today is already the new yesterday.) Everything in this cultural zeitgeist is all systems go, until the summer before Joni leaves for college, when Laser talks her into joining him in a plan to uncover the identity of the birth father they never knew. Unlike the tortured Ann Blyth in Our Very Own, who wreaked havoc on her all-American family after she discovered the shame of adoption and found her chain-smoking birth mother guzzling beer in a rundown shack by a railroad track, the sensitive, thoughtful kids here are so besotted with their real father (never mind the less-than-convincing details of how they find an anonymous sperm donor after 18 years) that they bond immediately, hatching a naïve plan to bring him into the cosmic family unit. Well, when he turns out to be a cool guy named Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a virile, easygoing organic gardener and restaurant owner, who is something of a kid himself, wouldn’t you? At first, they keep their clandestine meetings with Paul a secret from their two moms, but by the time they start hanging out with their new dad on a regular basis, Laser inadvertently reveals their subterfuge. Nic, the protective mother and uptight family security guard who fears losing her children to the kind of dominant male she has spent her life avoiding, shuns any encroachment from the outsider. But Jules, who is launching a new landscape-design business, agrees to help Paul remodel his organic garden to provide fresh produce for his trendy health food restaurant. The film takes an improbable turn when the attraction that develops between Jules and Paul leads to a full-blown sexual affair. In the ensuing guilt and nerves, Jules is torn between her ecstasy with a man who makes her feel like a traditional woman, and her marriage vows to Nic; the kids face the possibility that their family will implode; and Paul, now emotionally involved with his newly discovered kids, is left wondering where he fits into the emotionally wrenching puzzle they’ve created.
Great acting distinguishes this film, which tackles contemporary social issues with the natural rhythm of a heartbeat. It’s so cleverly written, designed, constructed and interpreted that no matter how uncomfortable you feel about the way times have changed (for better or worse), you end up brimming with compassion. I doubt if even the most unyielding of right-wing conservatives will find their equilibrium fazed by the honest way in which homosexual marriage is depicted, or the internecine interactions between family members without the ring of soundtrack laughs or Sturm und Drang histrionics. In the wrong hands, the comedy elements in the snappy, believable dialogue might have bordered dangerously on sitcom mechanics, but Ms. Cholodenko’s pumiced direction and the urbane finesse of the script, a collaboration between the director and Stuart Blumberg, keep everything on an even keel. I would have preferred more character development for the two women (we learn almost nothing about either their sexual history or their parenting skills), and I must admit I had trouble with some of their actions. I’m no expert on the subject, but as weak as I am for Julianne Moore, I didn’t buy the idea of a committed “wife” in a lesbian relationship who leaps eagerly into bed with a hairy heterosexual wolf for the first time in 18 years just because he’s horny. It’s also a bit disconcerting to see Annette Bening play über-butch, although she does it with scrupulous, moment-to-moment authenticity. (Her slow, jealous rage when she snoops through Paul’s bathroom and finds her partner’s hair in his hairbrush is so palpable you can see it in her temples.) They are both marvelous, but to be honest, I had a hard time with two beloved ladies of the screen watching gay porno films in bed while working each other over with a vibrator. But in the course of factoring in so many diverse elements of a complex gay marriage, I guess such caveats are small potatoes. For the most part, the film is admirable and Ms. Cholodenko seems to know the territory. Her two previous films, which I liked enormously, High Art and Laurel Canyon, were undeserved box office flops. Hopefully, this one will find its way to glory. To her credit, The Kids Are All Right never seems like a recruitment for the universal legalization of same-sex marriage, or a liberal manifesto on sexual politics of any kind. She brings homosexual marriage into the center spot, regarding it as no big deal, making its impact a very big deal indeed.
Some people might blindly and inaccurately accuse this movie of attacking family values, but it has exactly the opposite effect. Touching and funny in their upheaval, the people in The Kids Are All Right open the door to a brand new examination of family values that leaves you charged and cheering.
The Kids Are Allright
Running time 104 minutes
Written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko
Starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson
3 Eyeballs out of 4
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