Movie Review: The Kids Are All Right
The Charlotte Observer
I spent “The Kids are All Right” wondering whether director Lisa Cholodenko was affectionate toward her self-absorbed characters or gently mocking them. In the end, I thought she was both and liked the film more.
All three of her features – this one, “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon” – are about Californians overcome with malaise. They reach creative or personal impasses and wash back and forth with the tide in a sea of ennui, until something outside their lives pushes them in a new direction.
In the case of Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), a long-married lesbian couple, the outside influence comes from the sperm donor who fathered both of their kids three years apart.
Joni (Mia Wasikowska), the 18-year-old who’ll be off to college soon, contacts the unsuspecting dad on behalf of 15-year-old brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Dad turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo), an organic gardener/restaurateur who’s physically in his 40s but emotionally a teen.
This college dropout rides a motorcycle and espouses a “learn by doing, not sitting in a classroom” philosophy. He’s a philanderer who likes women 15 years younger than himself, a vague charmer who says he doesn’t want to be 50 years old without family or responsibilities but is headed firmly along that track.
The children, wary at first, take to Paul. So does Jules, who has drifted from career to career and is tired of Nic’s perfectionist attitude and clearly defined boundaries. Only Nic wonders whether this new guy’s happy-go-lucky philosophy is healthy, but she has other problems: She drinks a bit too much and refuses to acknowledge that Joni has become an adult.
The characters talk a language I think of as uniquely Californian: An apology comes out as “I know I haven’t been my highest self lately.” Yet their problems are as touching as anyone else’s, sometimes more so because they seem shocked to discover they have any. They’re like pilots sailing blithely through thick clouds who suddenly get a glimpse of the Earth rising up to meet them.
Cholodenko doesn’t get all her details right: Paul listens to albums rather than CDs. (Why do moviemakers always think that’s more romantic?) Joni is the only incoming freshman in America to get an enormous single room on the ground floor of her dorm.
Yet Cholodenko gets moods right, and her five leading actors have been either perfectly cast – that’d be Ruffalo, whose main strength is always scruffy charm – or well-handled.
Bening is especially fine. Except for the 2000 dud “What Planet Are You From,” she has spent the last 15 years as characters who are dour, doomed, dotty or downhearted. It’s a pleasure to see her work through a range of moods again and break into a smile that looks like a rainbow after a week of gray skies.