As it happens, the kids are alright. It's the adults in Lisa Cholodenko's third feature film that could use some work.
Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Benning) are long-time partners, women married and each raising a child produced by artificial insemination from the same donor. As Nic's daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) has passed her 18th birthday, her brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) prods her to contact their biological father. A meeting is arranged, the kids have varying reactions - as if falling into classical teenager/parent dynamics, it's the daughter taken with the handsome, laid back donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), while the son bristles at their differences - and their mothers ultimately find out about the meeting, to their varied chagrin. As Paul begins to develop relationships with the kids, as well as a work relationship with Jules (she's a budding landscape architect) that becomes more intimate than either expected, some very modern family chaos ensues.
The first half of The Kids Are Alright offers more than a few good moments. Where Lisa Cholodenko really succeeds here is in small things, details gotten right or revealed in a way that produce the most humor. Perhaps the best case of both starts with an abortive sexual session one night between Jules and Nic. They decide to have sex one evening in a way that any couple long together sometimes come upon the notion, as if they are suddenly excited to be heading for a cool part of town that they just don't visit as often as they used to. After Jules has disappeared beneath the bedspread and we hear the buzz of a vibrator, we see Nic's reaction to both Jule's efforts as well as her reaction to a male porn dvd on a t.v. screen. The fun is cut short when Nic accidentally sits on the remote, turning the tape up to maximum volume. As she fumbles for the remote in an embarrassed panic, seemingly everyone within 100 yards hears what's being played on the t.v. Funnier still, Laser's cloddish friend leads him into the room some days later, and thinks they have found a lesbian porn tape. The punchline occurs not so much in the boys' surprise in the man on man content of the tape, nor in the their being caught in the act of watching it, but in the explanation that Jules tries to provide as to why two lesbian women would watch male porn to arouse themselves. Mortified, the more uptight Nic madly tries to get Jules to cut her explanation short. It's a scene as funny and candid as we have quickly (over the course of her two previous features, High Art and Laurel Canyon) come to expect from Ms. Cholodenko.
Mark Ruffalo's particular charm also figures prominent through the pleasing early stages of The Kids Are Alright. He wears an "I'm alright, you're alright" sort of attitude with an easy masculinity. His character's
Given the soundtrack choice, the fact that Ms. DaCosta's fairly majestic afro can be seen bobbing around in the sexual workout and that a post coital chat finds Paul clad in jeans and unbuttoned jean jacket and no shirt, made me wonder for a few moments I had failed to realize that this film is set in the 1970's. Perhaps there are 40-ish guys in California, organic farmers or whatnot, who liberally sprinkle anachronistic-sounding "right on" into their conversation and have lots of 70's singer/songwriter's vinyl in their music collection. Perhaps. But Ruffalo's character seems a composite. He does at least make it work pretty well until the plot gets the best of him.
Moore and Benning don't demonstrate much chemistry, even when factoring in the long-term relationship chill, The same is true of the Moore and Ruffalo, gamely as they try.
The throwing together of Jules and Paul turns the film into much more predictable territory. When Nic suggests a dinner at Paul's so she can better get to know the man who's been charming the rest of her family, it goes well enough at first. She and Paul bond while singing a Joni Mitchell song, after which she declares, "I Like This Man." But when Nic excuses herself to go to the bathroom, everyone in the movie theater knows that she's about to discover evidence of the affair. Later that night, the truth comes out, a period of estrangement begins and eventually the family wagons will be circled against the "interloper," as Nic fairly hisses at Paul when he later comes to their house to try to explain himself to the kids.
When the door is slammed in his face after the blast of self-righteousness, the now floundering Paul looks through a window at Laser. He's looking for a bit sympathy with a shrug that would seem to say something along the lines of "this situation is kind of messed up, huh?" But it might as well be saying, "Do you believe what happened to my role? I don't know what's going on anymore." Either way, Laser disgustedly picks up his plate and moves to another room, a final bit of judgement passed by the family unit.
This is the second straight film in which Ms. Cholodenko has bedded, or nearly bedded, characters who have some connection to the same family. In her previous feature, Laurel Canyon, it was the fiancee and mother of the Alex (Christian Bale) character who find themselves in the same Chateau Marmont suite,on the verge of a three-way. Much as the characters recoil from that situation, it is perhaps a logical culmination of the clash of Alex's rigidity and his mother's California, rock and roll transgressiveness. Laurel Canyon also ends with a pretty beguiling image that suggests some of the latter is probably unavoidable and perhaps not such a bad thing. But as Cholodenko goes back to a very similar contrivance of plot in The Kids Are Alright, she either seems to lack ideas or intent on pursuing a suprisingly conservative one.
The Kids Are Alright is a box office success of sorts. As of last weekend (July 30 - Aug. 1), it had made nearly $10 million. That's not exactly Toy Story 3 ($389 million) money, nor even, disgracefully, Last Airbender money, but it's still well more than twice the film's budget. More significantly, the film played in 646 more theaters than was the case the week previous, the biggest gain by any film during the period. It's great to see a film about a family with lesbian parents that's able to approach the mainstream. It's even more encouraging that the sexual orienation of those characters isn't a matter of contention, or a point of hysteria. It just is.
Unfortunately, as The Kids Are Alright ventures toward the mainstream it picks up some of the facile moralising and plot conventions common to very mainstream family fare. There's even a group hug when when Joni (named after the singer, we have found out) is dropped off at college. Ms. Cholodenko's film would seem a good step forward, at least in a cultural sense. The next step, perhaps, would be a better film.