The debate over the 1989 children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies seems like a cultural millennium ago, but that doesn’t mean the era ushered in the kind of social acceptance or progressive politics one would have expected. Instead, we’ve endured a mixed bag of uphill climbs and road bumps epitomized by the current seesaw battle for gay marriage in California. Befuddling, hate-mongering politics that masquerade as moral high ground certainly aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but signs point to a time when our society (with a little help from the law and a more rational Supreme Court) may be ready to move on. Acting as both an innovator and a reactionary, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right is a welcome sign of the times: a vivacious film about a family with two women at the helm where (gasp!) politics are nowhere to be found.
Nic (Annette Bening), Jules (Julianne Moore), and their teenage kids, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska), are an average family in every way with the exception that Nic and Jules are lesbians. But no one seems to care, including Laser’s skate-punk friend who uses the word “f****t” as if oblivious to its meaning beyond a slur. Nic and Jules’s marriage is far from perfect, but it’s even farther from unusual. The comfort of trite bickering and the ease of mutual appreciation represent a typical, if not stereotypical, 20-year-plus relationship regardless of gender. Nic is the mother of Joni, Jules the mother of Laser, but both were born using the sperm from the same anonymous donor. Laser pressures Joni, who just turned 18, into contacting their donor father.
Enter Paul (Mark Ruffalo), an earthy and virile urban farmer who owns a restaurant. The kids meet Paul on the sly with the assumption that things won’t go beyond one visit. But opening that genetic door invites lingering questions. In an attempt to be sensitive to their kids’ needs, Nic and Jules ask Paul over, which culminates in him hiring Jules to do some landscaping and sending the group down the road to alt-family bliss. The easy-going Paul dives headfirst into his role of friend and father to the kids and confidante to Jules. Nic — the breadwinner who wears the type-A pants in the family — is the odd woman out and is rightly suspicious of the relationships her family is building with Paul. Every moment in this film sparkles with a refreshing humor and sincerity. Whether it’s Jules sharing an overly rational explanation for gay-male porn with Laser, or Joni inarticulately expressing disappointment in Paul, The Kids Are All Right never loses its bubbly veracity.
Cholodenko enlists five actors who make this film not only extremely watchable but also entirely believable. Bening and Moore embody the affectations of a couple to a tee; their California characters fall somewhere between The L Word and Parenthood. Bening shines at a dinner party where she gives an a cappella rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” and moments later silently and personally confronts her partner’s infidelity. Unfortunately, the film’s need to be contrary and funny occasionally backs the characters into superficial corners. Nic’s tirades on composting, açaí, and hemp milk are over-the-top in their attempt to be antithetical and humorous. Likewise, the script occasionally pulls back from melodrama, as if it’s afraid of getting burned. Jules gives an explanation for her poor sexual judgment (“marriage is a fucking marathon”) in a soliloquy to her family that is incredibly poignant, but she shyly backs away by capping it with an innocent but mood-killing quip about Russian novels. The narrative set-up is perfect for a late-in-life homo-reformation sermon, but thankfully Cholodenko asserts her team pride and hits a hardline drive, earning RBIs from all of us who hardly see orientation as a choice.
But she doesn’t do so without acknowledging it. Privy to Jules’s infidelity, Nic asks the incredulous question that hangs in the air: “Are you straight now?” Even if her denial is not convincing, Jules shortly thereafter responds to Paul’s attempts to win her over by stating “Paul, I’m gay” in such a “no-duh” tone that it nearly bowled over my wavering expectations with surprise. The tryst-induced crisis is handled with candor and honesty on an individual level, regardless of orientation. Paul quickly shifts from mysterious and hunky donor-daddy to thoughtless home-wrecker in the eyes of Joni and Laser and to a self-indulgent “interloper” in the eyes of Nic. Jules might be wearing the scarlet letter around the house, but her bond with Nic, Joni, and Laser is not as easily dismissed as her bond with Paul—his harsh treatment is not about blame but about the emotional survival of a family.
Cholodenko received critical acclaim for High Art and Laurel Canyon, but The Kids Are All Right will likely be a breakout defined by awards season. In limited release, this subtle little family comedy was neck-and-neck with the blockbuster-supreme Inception in per-screen revenue. Although every good film needs to hold its own beyond the cultural implications that might cushion critique, it is impossible not to take note of the assimilation of The Kids Are All Right. Tearing the rainbow flag and the protest signs from our hands, Cholodenko has taken a bold step by making a film that moves an entire community beyond martyrdom and indignation, and shifting, ever so slightly, the image of lesbian couples and families to anything but abnormal. Although I have never subscribed to the cause-and-effect influence of popular entertainment when the debate is geared towards violence begetting violence, is there any chance that a populist drama can beget tolerance?