Monday, February 7, 2011

The Kids are All Right

The Kids Are All Right (U.S., 2010) directed by Lisa Cholodenko,106 minutes

Nominated for Four Oscars: 
Actress in a Supporting Role (Annette Benning)
Actor in a Supporting Role (Mark Ruffalo)
Best Picture 
Original Screenplay

For some reason the premise of the film initially irked me. It seemed like such a deliberately modern and trendily contrived premise - a lesbian couple, an anonymous sperm donor, two upper middle class occupations not to mention the names of the children - one named for Joni Mitchell, one named Laser.

Two gay moms – Nic, a doctor who is a bit of a control freak (the spiky haired Annette Benning doing one of her more brittle turns and looking alot like the director here) and Jules, a faltering landscape architect with low self esteem (Julianne Moore). They sire two children by Paul, an anonymous sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo), who donated his sample many years ago. The kids are now teenagers. When one of the children asks to meet the anonymous bio dad, they find him to be a charming, if intrusive, presence in the established order of their lives.

The film has a slightly muddy quality as if to persuade the viewer that this is not a Hollywood film, but closer to real life. It’s like Lisa Cholodenko picked up the camera and caught something “real” on tape. Sometimes it works for me. Sometimes it doesn’t. Here it does provide the necessary feeling for this slightly messy film. Is this consciously done or just a lack of money for better production values?

The kids are divided over their bio dad. Joni (Mia Wasikowska) is initially charmed while her brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is unimpressed finding Paul to be full of himself. Ruffalo performs without the self-consciousness that has sometimes marred his better known performances. At times in his acting, he is operating with such unnecessary intensity that, talented actor that he is, he seems to be appearing in a different film than the other characters - as the love interest in that piece of gossamer 13 going on 30 (2004) or as the skittish husband involved in a car accident in Reservation Road (2007). In this film however, he is scruffy, sexy and appealing and seemingly unaware of how much havoc he is wreaking as he turns spouse against spouse and sibling against sibling.

Jules, a little inexplicably, falls for Paul and they initiate an affair when she starts working on landscaping his home. Nic suspects nothing initially but the pieces soon fall into place. Joni hangs out more and more with her father Paul and starts to do, in a small way, the things that her two moms have forbidden her to do such as take a ride on the motorcycle which Paul owns. This upsets the delicate balance of the home – with its carefully prescribed rules and guidelines for the kids.

But the character of Paul is carefully fleshed out – he may tempt Joni to bend her mothers’ rules but he also tries to steer Laser away from a bullying, volatile friendship in which Laser is demeaned. Paul is not a villain despite his attraction to, and seduction, of Jules – he is more seen as sloppy and unthinking about repercussions. He leads his emotional life the way he does most things in his life.

This is a sensitive portrait of a long-term relationship with obligations. We due tend to take each other for granted, we do get bored and irritated with each other. We might let ourselves be carried away by someone who is fun and charismatic and won't nag us about taking out the garbage or having dinner ready on time. Cholodenko has captured that perfectly.

And I like the way the drama in the family sorts itself out…it doesn’t lead to an irrevocable break. The two women love each other and the kids love their mothers a great deal. They will not allow the family to be broken up despite the inevitable tensions. This feels truer to real life than some more emotional and spectacular denouement.

I read some enraged personal reviews on about how certain viewers disliked the idea of a gay woman falling for a straight man and why did he (the male character) even have to enter the picture? Some even categorized it as anti-gay. Let's grow up a little. It's one scenario, one story, and Cholodenko has the right to play it any way she likes as a gay woman and the screenwriter of this film without feeling an obligation to represent all or any one POV in the gay community.

Initially published August 22, 2010.


Cheryl said...

I cannot leave an intelligent comment here because I knew Annette Bening as a teenager and I still feel really weird when I see her on the ol' screen . . .

Michelle said...

Really? That's intriguing ... I hope I didn't offend you?

Cheryl said...

NO WAY, are you kidding me? She was popular, and bouncy, and cute and a bit over the top. I was a shrinking violet/geeky nerd. Years later I was standing in a grocery line, wearing my nurse's uniform and looking like a wrung-out rag, and I saw her smiling face looking out at me from the magazine racks. Though I would not trade lives with her, in that moment I felt like such a LOOOOOOSAH! Yikes. I am sure she is a very nice person and I think she is a fine actor, but there are some things in adolescence you just don't get over, and feeling like you don't measure up is one of mine!!!

Not offended at all. Its not her fault she ended up beautiful, successful and talented!!!

Christine said...

Re: ..."certain viewers disliked the idea of a gay woman falling for a straight man.."

It happens (perhaps not often but often enough) and I agree the filmmaker can tell any story she wants. Life happens.

Michelle said...

I really think that Cholodenko was trying to show the strength of the relationship between the two women and how they were able to surmount this breach of trust - not to make it seem that one really preferred men.