The Kids Are All Right is a charming and engaging little dramedy with a wonderful cast. It manages the wonderful feat of making an on-screen family seem “real” – there are any number of sequences in this which viewers will spot from years of family interactions. It’s an interesting study of how a strange “interloper” can have a surprisingly destablising effect on a family unit – how it all it takes is this one catalyst to bring all this unsung tension to the surface. But it’s never heavy or self-important. Sure, the ending is more than a little awkward, but the movie’s smart and funny enough to keep you engaged with it to the final reel.
And that’s saying nothing of the cracking David Bowie soundtrack? It has Won on it!
The plot centres around the decision by two children, Joni (played by Mia Wasikowska from Alice in Wonderland) and Laser, to make contact with the sperm donor who allowed their lesbian mothers (or “momses”) to conceive. Over the course of Joni’s last summer before heading to college, the family finds itself adjusting to the presence and growing involvement of the donor, a “food service industry” professional by the name of Paul (played by Mark Ruffalo), within the tightly knit family unit.
Had sperm donation existed in the thirties, you get the sense that this could easily have been a classical comedy of manners – it’s such a simple and straightforward premise, but it offers quite a considerable bit of ground for the movie to explore. Despite the fact the movie deals with topics such as sperm donation and “unconventional” family units (which has always been a strange way of describing these families to me – I’ve never met a “conventional” family; my grandfather once told me, very wisely, that there’s no such thing as an “average” or “normal” family), director and writer Lisa Cholodenko deserves credit for never seeming cheap or exploitative.
Although the movie is frequently biting and witty, it is never at the expense of its subject matter, which it treats as it would any other family unit. Indeed, attempts to add modernity to these sorts of relational comedies – with The Switch being the most recent and obvious example – would do well to learn from this little film. The comedy is wonderfully social – with a lot of it coming from the incredibly awkward interactions and the thoughts of the consequences that various actions will accrue.
It helps that Cholodenko has assembled a top-notch cast for the film. Julianne Moore and Annette Bening headline the film as the lesbian couple Nic and Jules. Both are wonderfully underrated actresses – Moore has far more range than any other leading lady I can think of off the top of my head and Bening deserved that Oscar for American Beauty. the fact that the two leading ladies could be reduced to archetypes (Nic is the control freak and Jules is the free spirit), but it never feels so straightforward on the screen is a testament to the skill and quality of the two actresses. The fact they have great chemistry and even sharper comedic timing (Moore in particular) is just icing on the cake.
Mia Wasikowska establishes herself as a talent to watch. She didn’t have much room to move amid the scale and spectacle of Alice in Wonderland, but here she proves that she’s more than just the other person in that Tim Burton movie (the one who isn’t Johnny Depp).
Mark Ruffalo is so much better than his level of fame would have you believe. He’s been a redeeming leading man in a sucky romantic comedy, a supporting actor in films from great directors and “that guy” audiences are starting to recognise but can’t quite put a face to. He’s so much more than that, and he handles his role well here as a guy who finds himself suddenly surrounded by a family. Paul could just as easily be a one-dimensional foil, a thoughtless and heartless manchild who leaves a trail of destruction in his wake, but Ruffalo makes the character seem sympathetic – you can relate to his side of the story. He’s in a strange situation too – he’s learning to deal with all this and perhaps can’t comprehend the consequences of his input, advice or actions.
If the movie has a weakness, it’s that it perhaps veers too much into heavy drama at the end – the opening three quarters are serious, but they are underpinned by a sense of humour and charm – a sense that things are messed up (or are going to be messed up), but it’s still wryly observed. In the last quarter, the humour pretty much disappears from the film, as the characters must decide how they are going to deal with what has happened. It’s quite a sharp change in mood, and one which is quite noticeable.
That said, it isn’t a major problem – it’s absolutely fantastic that the movie accepts that not everything has a trite little romantic comedy ending. Do you remember the start of (500) Days of Summer, when the introductory monologue (“be warned, this is a story about love; but it is not a love story”) helped us to come to terms with the fact that the story wouldn’t have a conventional ending? To me, that felt fresh and honest. More honest than that ending tacked on to every pointless and sappy little romantic where a character explains themselves to another and cuddle their way over the sunset. The Kids Are All Right understands that real life doesn’t work that way – happy endings aren’t always possible (let alone likely). It’s a brave decision, and one which – hopefully – will leave you thinking about the film after you leave the cinema.
All in all, it’s a pretty great little film, the sort of charming and smart little effort that I can see endearing itself to those who go to see it. It is very worth your time (which is saying something in this prime cinema season).
Did I mention the cracking David Bowie soundtrack? It has Panic in Detroit on it!
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | alice in wonderland, family, film, Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko, mark ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Movies, non-review review, review, Sperm donation, the kids are all right