Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bening and Moore Are Quite "All Right"--A Film Review

Prologue: "The Kids Are Alright" is an album of music by the British Rock Band "The Who", containing such iconic '60's tracks as "My Generation" and "Won't Get Fooled Again". It's part of the formative soundtrack of the two protagonists of the 2010 film of the same name, women who remained true to their counterculture ideals, and who find these ideals tested as they confront a changing culture.  Their children, however, are less troubled by these conflicts, and cope with their indirect might even read the title of the film The KIDS Are All Right--as opposed to their mothers...

In the new movie, two adversarial characters are surprised to find a shared love for the music of Joni Mitchell and her "Blue" album, prompting a lovely acapella rendition of "All I Want". For those that appreciate her art and music, Joni Mitchell represents a virtual lifetime of gained wisdom and rainy afternoons and recovery from lost loves and the poetry of intimacy. It is rare to meet true fans, and once you do. you may be more willing to overlook their faults.  It is clear that the movie "The Kids Are All Right" has its head and heart in the right place.

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"The Kids Are All Right", Lisa Cholodenko's contemporary dramatic comedy, examines the relationships among members of a unique California family.  This film, released during a summer in which articles about the lack of movie originality appear almost as frequently as the kiddie-sequels, comic-book blockbusters and thrill-rides they decry, seems like some sort of happy anomaly.  It's like a Brigadoon for a neglected segment of film-goers, who once upon a time took for granted that original stories about recognizable people,  which tap into the current zeitgeist, were the stock and trade of Hollywood. 

And now Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg have crafted a movie that is relevant, yet made with the lightness and care of some of the great films of the 1970's.  "The Kids Are All Right" compares favorably with the best work of Paul Mazursky, Bob Rafelson, and Hal Ashby. 

I was pre-disposed to enjoy this moving and funny story of a lesbian couple, their two children each conceived by the same sperm donor, and the way this man's reappearance into their lives spins them all into unexpected directions.

Instead of 3-D, we get flesh-and-blood humans in conflict.  Instead of guns, there is wit and sharp dialog.  Instead of creatures and CGI, we are consumed by a world of likable, flawed people who seem like old friends who come to visit for a brief summer interlude.

And, just like the characters, the movie itself is likable and flawed, and worthy to be embraced.

This is a character study in every sense, and it needs great performers to inhabit these characters.  Happily, the actors in "The Kids Are All Right" know their roles intimately and behave onscreen with a naturalness that makes our identification with them, and our scrutiny of their behavior, so rewarding. This is what the film medium does best.  After a while I found myself so absorbed by these people, and so intrigued by their unpredictability, that I felt I had lived with them, had moved around in their spaces.

Annette Bening is Nic, a medical professional and the strength of the family.  To me, Bening is the one who holds the film's center together.  We utterly believe her warm inner core, her need for control, whose fierce love for her partner and children sets herself up for a huge emotional fall.  When the story threatens to veer off-track in the second half, it is Bening's authenticity that convinces us of the believability of the unusual events that unfold.  We trust her completely as an actress, and she never makes a mistake. It is always a treat to see her on screen, and I have missed her presence lately.  This could be the best work she has done since "American Beauty." 

Julainne Moore is a perfect complement to Bening's style.  Her character, Jules, is insecure and needing of constant love and reassurance, and is seeking her own way, both within her family and as a creative member of society (Jules is starting a landscape architecture business as the film begins).  Moore plays her scenes with Bening with the right balance of quirky delivery and restlessness.  She is vulnerable and formidably comic, and I don't think she has ever been so expressive on-screen.

Both Moore and Bening take us on a familiar journey: that of a marriage and its challenges, and the overwhelming love of mothers for children.  The film is free from political posturing.  It does not set up  lesbian marriage/motherhood as a paragon, and so we find ourselves forgetting about the novelty of the situation and responding to the universal themes of loyalty and fidelity and discontent.  We care about these characters like we do good friends. We laugh at their new-age platitudes but make concessions for their weaknesses, even when the movie's plot points become shaky.

Mark Ruffalo is pulled into the lives of this family as Paul, the man whose donated sperm Nic and Jules used to conceive their two children.  It is the kids who contact him and set up the meeting that changes everything.  Paul is problematic both in terms of the conflicts in the story and as a device in the film.  I liked his performance a lot, as a man who is unwittingly united with his own kids, and the women who raised them, and wrestles with his paternal affection as well as a sexual attraction for Moore, which she reciprocates (in graphic detail).  Ruffalo is appealing, and wins us over to the contradictions of his character.  His is a compelling portrait of a deceptively easygoing man-child.

It is here that I worried that the film might be derailed.  I remember objecting to the plot twist in "Chasing Amy" in which a lesbian character finds sexual bliss in the arms of a man. I also wondered why the straight sex in this movie was so explicit, and the love between the two partnered women was kept completely under wraps.  These were my initial criticisms, which for me were resolved with the film's emotional finale..... What transpires (no spoilers here) sets up conflicting tensions in the viewer that need some kind of resolution, and so Ruffalo's hapless Paul is made into sort of a scapegoat.

The Kids in the film are Mia Wasikowska, the eldest, who must make some sort of peace with her friends and her mothers as she prepares to go to college; and Josh Hutcherson, the younger, who grapples with the situation with equal amounts of hero-worship and disappointment.  Both of these actors are perfect, often better than the script asks them to be.  Hutcherson' Laser recalls a mellower version of the troubled son in "Terms of Endearment", and Wasikowska, whose character is named after Nic's idol Joni Mitchell, is bright and intelligent and who lives up to her character's namesake.  Aside from Bening's presence here, the scenes between Joni and her friends recall the acerbic posturing of "American Beauty".

The script contains some wonderfully fresh dialog and a unique look at a family doing its best to hold together.  I think the film's only weakness is in the plotting, which adds one contrivance to another into a shaky structure.  It is well-directed and paced, though, and the actors, once again, make us believe in it like the caprices of life itself.  Come Oscar time, all of the performers and Cholodenko ought to hear their names called as nominees...and I would wager that one or two Oscars are in this film's future. 

There is so much more to explore in Paul's character, and the real issues of paternity and family and how he deals with a newfound love for the children he helped create.  Now THAT would be a Summer sequel I would line up for.  Paul made mistakes, yes, but I can't really pin all of the blame on him.  After all, he loved Joni Mitchell's "Blue"!


  1. Such a nice review of a film I'm really anticipating. You're teasing me praising Annette so effusively.

  2. Really nicely written review. I've read some reviews that hint the film presents same sex couples having additional problems in sustaining a family set-up which might even be read that it's not viable.

    You've said that the politics were downplayed but that initially you thought the attraction between Moore and Ruffalo might derail the film.

    On reflection do you think the film presents same-sex parenting as a viable alternative to the traditional family? Or will people leave the movie with the same preconceptions about the issue as when they arrived?

  3. Thank you for the comments!
    Andrew, if you love Annette Bening, you will certainly enjoy this film.
    Ben, you ask some interesting questions! I felt, on the contrary, that the film did not present same-sex parenting as anything unusual in itself. I rather appreciated the lack of any subplots involving outside disapproval of their relationship or mentions of the laws regarding same-sex marriage. In the current climate, it would have been too easy, and probably would have dated the film badly.
    I think the movie did a good job examining a troubled marriage and its impact on the couple and on the kids. In the end, their marriage was as unique as any other, with its own set of challenges, and the same-sex nature of the marriage made it neither more nor less viable than any other in raising children.
    My unease with the Moore/Ruffalo relationship had more to do with believability and authenticity, and my wish to see the love between these women treated with more than Hollywood's usual lack of integrity. I found that I had to supply a lot of my own justifications to accept the possibility of this particular infidelity given these characters' circumstances. My guess is that, unfortunately, people who are set against same-sex couples as parents will either avoid the film or put up a lot of resistance to it.