It’s the warm, wise humour of ‘The Kids Are All Right’ that distinguishes it from the pack, even more so than American writer and director Lisa Cholodenko’s decision to make a funny, mainstream drama about a pair of lesbian mothers and what happens when their two teenage children invite the anonymous sperm donor who is their biological father into their comfortable, progressive lives in sunny, suburban California.
The two mothers in question – or ‘mumses’, as their kids call them – are Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore). They have been together for years and have built a model unit of progressive parenting in their spacious home. Nic is a successful doctor, while Jules is just as sensitive and loving as a mother but more drifting in her career and more prone to hippy-student tics in her conversation. Just as the pair’s elder child, quiet and assured Joni (played by Mia Wasikowska) is preparing to head off to university, she calls a sperm bank on behalf of her curious, 15-year-old brother, Laser (Josh Hutcherson), a sensitive jock who, we assume, is craving a little male presence in his life.
It’s not long before the two kids are meeting their biological father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), at his organic restaurant, WYSIWYG, where this man-boy enjoys flirting and sleeping with his staff and living in a bubble of laid-back, organic contentedness. Paul and the kids get along just fine, but the conflicts in Cholodenko’s film properly get into gear when Nic and Jules, in an effort to be good parents, invite Paul for dinner. Their careful parenting rubs against his laissez-faire approach to life (‘I’m not saying higher learning universally blows, but…’), throwing a spotlight on what it means to be relaxed in life, love and families and exposing some of the cracks in their own relationships with each other and their kids.
Cholodenko’s film is confident and knowing enough to tease its characters for their ridiculous habits and foibles, and there are plenty of laughs at the expense of right-on attitudes, without trashing them. There’s an excruciating early scene when one of the children discovers their mums’ stash of gay male porn and Jules tries stutteringly to explain why most lesbian porn is so ‘inauthentic’. Later on, it’s hard to watch as Nic breaks into an a cappella version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘All I Want’ at dinner.
‘The Kids Are All Right’ is often very funny, but it also takes its characters’ lives seriously enough to be convincing and affecting as a portrait of modern American family life. Cholodenko may object to Paul’s more insensitive invasions, but she never once labels him a villain. It helps that Ruffalo, recalling his turn as a wayward sibling in 2000’s ‘You Can Count on Me’, is such an endearing presence.
But Ruffalo gives only one of a string of excellent tragi-comic performances. Moore combines physical comedy, especially when wearing her khaki gardening gear, with an interior brittleness, while Bening smiles brilliantly through gritted teeth until she can do so no longer and offers some of the film’s most moving scenes when it takes a turn for the serious in its final act.