Let's get heady for a second.
I think it's safe to say that Hollywood is doing at least ONE positive thing these days – the studios and networks are starting to recognize that the American family has gone through a gargantuan paradigm shift since All in the Family. Domestic stability is no longer contingent on traditional sexuality. Rather, the health and well being of a family is all about whether or not mom and dad, dad and dad, or mom and mom actually love each other, and transfer said love over to the kids. There's also of course the single parent – they've gotta love himself/herself too! But in so many words, we're no longer living in an exclusively straight world anymore – that's to say people aren't burning crosses in the yards of gay families' yards (quite as much) anymore, homosexual couples can actually adopt children, or in the case of The Kids Are All Right, can choose to go the sperm donor route.
Of course, gay entertainment isn't some watershed thing that's just NOW happening. With premium cable programming like Queer as Folk and The L Word, gay culture finally got the well-deserved respect of being depicted in a "mainstream" way. Whereas gay culture's depiction lived almost exclusively in the realm of pornography and films dedicated to the dangers of the homosexual lifestyle (i.e. Cruisin', Philadelphia), these shows presented the social, joyous, and yes, sometimes dramatic sides of the gay lifestyle without painting a big fat bull's eye on the characters' foreheads.
What's new though is this depiction of the gay family, and how it's definitely something that's real in our culture now. Modern Family, a primetime network sitcom on ABC is a huge deal for this very reason. The American family en masse can now see the gay family in existence. In addition to its airing on network TV, the other really incredible thing about Modern Family is that fact that the gay family isn't the subject of the sitcom – it's one of three main story lines, the other 2 revolving around "straight" families. In so many words, the gay family isn't the subject of cheap shots any more so than the idiocy the straight families carry out every week. They're equals. Lets just say that even 10 years ago such equality would not have happened if a show like this was green lit by a network.
Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right capitalizes on this new domestic equality effortlessly, and the context is an incredibly profound and hilarious "what if" question:
What if you were a lesbian couple and you had 2 kids from the same sperm donor, and then all of sudden the sperm donor became part of your lives 18 years later?
Yeah, that's a pretty specific question, with a really specific context, and an endless amount of possible specific outcomes. Yet Cholodenko manages to give audiences what feels like some of the most realistic possible answers to this hypothetical with total grace, and utter hilarity.
Jules (Julianna Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) have been married something like 20 years, and their first child, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), is about to head off to college. Emotions are high in the household – of course Mom and Mom don't want to see their baby go, and we see quickly that Nic is certainly the one that really has the separation anxiety issues – always trying to administer too much control. It's how she loves, and she can't help it, much to the dismay of Joni, her brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson), and even Jules.
But this is just a bump in the road – they can all get through this inevitable life transition. Yet a huge wrench is thrown in the gears when Joni is coaxed by the younger Laser to seek out and meet their donor "father." Quickly they're able to track down Paul (Mark Ruffalo) through the cryobank from which they were conceived, and realize that maybe they actually have an uncanny spark ignite between the 3 of them.
Soon enough, Jules and Nic catch wind of the kids' liaison with Paul, and they of course feel that the strong, domestic fiber they've so carefully weaved and reinforced over the years is being threatened by faceless outsider who just so happened to donate the sperm they deemed fit to procreate with upon reading his file.
From here we see that more than anyone, Paul identifies that family is incredibly important. He subtly attempts to latch on to the strong dynamic of the Jules/Nic/Joni/Laser clan, but in the process, overstays his welcome here, takes too much authoritative license there, and even gets too much approval from part of the family (yes, ambiguity – see the movie.)
This is definitely a performance driven movie, and Ruffalo, Bening, and Moore all deliver impeccable, totally believable depictions of these infinitely complex characters. What makes this movie such a joy to watch is how each character's chemistry with one another is very specific. In so many words, yeah, every character is interesting and has very nuanced quirks, but even more nuanced is how they interact with each other one on one. The cast shows how even in the context of family, we put on different faces, voices, and facades for one another. I'm struggling to put this in a more coherent way…
In spite of these phenomenal performances, the quality of the younger actors' are conspicuously lower than the triple threat of Ruffalo, Bening, and Moore. That's not to say they didn't hold there own – any time the kids have a scene with any of the RBM team, the adults certainly wield their craft and skill amazingly to really get the kids in the scenes with them. But, whenever the kids are sans RBM, it almost feels like a different movie – there's a lack of chemistry without the "sure thing" crutches of RBM.
The only other thing that alienated me from the film was the ending. Obviously not something to talk too much about here, but I challenge you as a viewer to identify who is right at the end of the film, and if someone got the total shaft without fair reason. I personally do, so I was left with a slight pit in my stomach, albeit the movie is such a great balance of humor and melodrama that I was still laughing with said pit in my stomach.
What The Kids Are All Right does best:
It makes this family feel normal. The fact that it's a Mom and Mom parental situation never calls cheap attention to itself. It's so matter-of-fact and their love for one another is so real that you admire their relationship and family more than anything. It's a confirmation that, yes, "alternative" parenting styles work, gay families are full of love, and there are still road blocks in any version of paradise. I sigh with relief when I think about this movie – it really is a refreshing confirmation that maybe we're starting to understand each other in society a little bit better; that tolerance is on the upswing; and that love is appreciated and needed more than ever before.
3.5 out of 4 giant kisses on the cheek.