Thursday, May 23, 2024

“THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT”

THE STORY – Lesbian couple Nic and Jules have been together for twenty years, bringing up two children thanks to the contributions of a anonymous sperm donor. As 18-year-old daughter Joni prepares to leave for college, she and younger brother Laser get curious about their heritage. Making contact with Paul, the laid-back restaurateur whose sperm bank deposit helped bring them into the world, the two set off a chain reaction.

THE CAST – Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska & Josh Hutcherson

THE TEAM – Lisa Cholodenko (Director/Writer) & Stuart Blumberg (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 107 Minutes


The Sundance Film Festival has long been a springboard for promising independent features to emerge as hopeful Oscar contenders and reach worldwide audiences. The 2010s, in particular, saw a rise of Oscar recognition for Sundance titles, among them director and writer Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right.” Cholodenko’s queer family drama journeyed from a starry 2010 Sundance premiere to a mainstream celebration of four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture at the 83rd Academy Awards. The film was nominated for Best Actress (Annette Bening), Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), and Best Original Screenplay. In revisiting “The Kids Are All Right” over a decade since its release, what continues to stand out is a refreshingly told story of a lesbian couple living the daily ins and outs of their marriage and finding their way back to each other emotionally. While some dialogue in the film does not age well, and it loses some narrative focus, strong pillars can be found in an endearing cast, along with a great balance of comedy and drama.

During the film’s first few scenes, Cholodenko establishes the stage for a bittersweet family drama with a stellar ensemble. Married couple Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) and their teenage kids Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson) catch up on each other’s lives at the dinner table. The conversation is nuanced with details that speak to their distinctive personalities. Nic and Jules’ different parenting styles emerge (the former more assertive, the latter more relaxed), as do Joni’s shyness and Laser’s impulsiveness. One of Laser’s impulses sparks a series of complicated events that put the story in motion. Laser persuades his sister to secretly contact their biological father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who was the sole sperm donor for both children. Once the story unravels with Paul in the picture, the family is left to address the inner conflicts that arise.

Co-written by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, the screenplay focuses more on whether the parents are all right than what the kids are going through. Nic and Jules have a seemingly steady marriage that, upon closer look, reveals a sensitive dynamic tested by feelings of dissatisfaction and disconnection. With Nic’s job as a physician being more financially stable than Jules’ new landscape business, Nic assumes a more dominant role in the relationship. This has created an imbalance for Jules; she feels underappreciated as a stay-at-home mom figuring out her career. So, when met with a form of appreciation from Paul, who asks her to work as his gardener during their first meeting, Jules seizes the opportunity in a heartbeat.

As a credit to the writing, the relationship between Nic and Jules is not given too much exposition. Some of their most compelling moments together can be found in the subtle work, from the look of disappointment on Jules’ face when Nic cuts an intimate moment short for a work call to the hurt in Nic’s eyes when met with betrayal. What makes Nic and Jules interesting to watch is how they can contradict themselves and make messy choices. Cholodenko and Blumberg paint a realistically intricate picture of two different personalities, with two sets of expectations, navigating each other’s space under one roof. Their characters are brought to life terrifically by Bening and Moore, who lead the story with layered performances.

Bening encompasses everything that Cholodenko goes for, from exercising biting humor and wit to unearthing marital conflict. Bening has some of the film’s most entertaining lines of dialogue, including her famously quick comeback to Paul after he offers parenting advice. She has the gravitas to make the comedic drama sing and can also turn the dial to be utterly devastating in the blink of an eye. Nic discovers a major secret during a standout dinner scene, quite possibly the moment that clinched Bening her fourth Oscar nomination, and the camera smartly stays on Bening. The revelatory expression on her face locks you into her frame of mind.

In the same dinner scene, the wonderful Julianne Moore does impressively subtle work opposite Bening. Jules’ writing can be a little lackluster at times, especially regarding the big decisions she makes that impact the entire family. Nonetheless, Moore’s preservative performance makes the character intriguing to watch. She jumps into the deep end of conflicting values and moral dilemmas with a refreshing openness. Moore gets her standout scene late into the film with a strong monologue about people sometimes hurting the ones they love the most without knowing why. Additionally, Moore’s strong chemistry with Bening excels at depicting a lesbian relationship that does not feel generic.

For the most part, “The Kids Are All Right” extends room for characters to simply be complicated, messy, and human. However, the supporting characters of the film are let down by underdeveloped writing. The treatment of one particular character, a gardener named Luis (Joaquín Garrido), who is accused of having a drug problem, ages poorly with insensitivity. Ironically, given the film title, the kids’ characters lack insightful attention. While one gets a strong enough idea of what their mini-worlds look like and how the company they keep influences their behaviors, their perspectives on Paul feel glossed over. The story starts with a promising interest in Joni and Laser’s point of view. After all, their curiosity is the driving force behind Paul’s involvement in the plot. However, once a certain narrative decision is made concerning Paul and Jules, the story shifts gears and loses focus. Joni and Laser could have resonated on a deeper level had their interior worlds been more thoroughly developed. 

The same sentiment applies somewhat to Paul. The introduction to his character paints a breezy picture of a spirited restauranteur without a care in the world. But when the sperm bank calls, a lightbulb flashes on. After meeting Joni and Laser, Paul sees a life in fatherhood that he might want for himself. In wishful dad mode, Ruffalo shines with an effortless charm. His performance embodies the subtle shift of emotions and priorities when faced with uncertainty: what does this scenario mean for him? How can he prepare for the potentiality of fatherhood? The role plays to some of the actor’s strengths, including an instant first impression likability. Paul embodies a novelty energy that disrupts the family’s flow, which intrigues the kids, especially Joni, who feels pressured to be the “perfect” daughter. The more time she spends with Paul, the greater her expectations. This makes her disappointment in him later in the story all the more hurtful; Wasikowska plays the range of emotions wonderfully. Paul’s attempts at having a relationship with the kids begin as an interesting dynamic, but the oddly abrupt conclusion for his character leaves behind an underwhelming feeling. However, Ruffalo brings so much charm to the role that you feel inclined to think about where he ends up.

The impressive balance of tone in “The Kids Are All Right” makes up for the film’s shortcomings. Cholodenko’s direction is an easygoing embrace of messy, complicated people navigating their lives. A lot of the characters make uninhibited decisions that emerge out of their inner conflicts, from Jules crossing the boundaries of her marriage and Nic turning to wine as an emotional salve to Joni spontaneously getting drunk after kissing a crush and Laser hanging out with a troublemaker. Cholodenko smartly captures how the dynamics of a family can be shaped so quickly when met with an unexpected encounter. Her energetic direction and the lived-in chemistry between the actors help to create an entertaining living portrait of a modern family.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - The bittersweet family dynamics and endearing performances make “The Kids Are All Right” a compelling watch.

THE BAD - The narrative focus can be inconsistent, and some of the character development lacks insightful commentary.

THE OSCARS - Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor & Best Original Screenplay (Nominated)

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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Nadia Dalimonte
Nadia Dalimonte
Editor In Chief for Earth to Films. Film Independent, IFS Critics, NA Film Critic & Cherry Pick member.

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Latest Reviews

<b>THE GOOD - </b>The bittersweet family dynamics and endearing performances make “The Kids Are All Right” a compelling watch.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The narrative focus can be inconsistent, and some of the character development lacks insightful commentary.<br><br> <b>THE OSCARS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-picture/">Best Picture</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-actress/">Best Actress</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-supporting-actor/">Best Supporting Actor</a> & <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-original-screenplay/">Best Original Screenplay</a> (Nominated)<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT"