|The Kids Are All Right | Directed by Lisa Cholodenko | Written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg | with Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson, and Yaya Dacosta | Focus Features | 106 minutes|
If you're going to watch one sperm-donor comedy this year — and there are a few of them, including Jennifer Lopez's The Back-Up Plan
and Jennifer Aniston's upcoming The Switch
— make it Lisa Cholodenko's charming, uplifting, and very funny subversion of the traditional patriarchal family.
First off, be aware that despite the Who-alluding title, this is — musically speaking — much more a Joni Mitchell kind of film. Nic (Annette Bening) is a huge fan of the singer, so much so that she named her just-turned-18-year-old daughter (Mia Wasikowska) Joni. (Her partner Jules's 15-year-old boy is called Laser; the inspiration might have been a light show at a David Bowie concert, since his glitter period is heavily represented on the soundtrack.)
In one scene, Nic, somewhat the worse for wine, sings Mitchell's "All I Want," every pause and chirp exactly like the recording. At first, her earnest rendition is ridiculous; then it's embarrassing; finally it becomes touching. This orchestration of mood, tone, and point of view is typical of the artfulness that Cholodenko brings to the loaded subject of gay parenthood, and it makes the plight of her characters endearing to all audiences, regardless of ideology — despite being pointed and uncompromising in its honesty.
An example of that honesty is the portrayal of Nic and Jules's marriage: it's no blissful alternative to the heterosexual kind. Nic, a workaholic physician, has taken on some of the traits of an insensitive husband; Jules (Julianne Moore) has gravitated to the role of the subordinate housewife. The spark has faded in many ways, as witness a lovemaking bout in which Jules works overtime under the covers while Nic tries to get it on by watching gay male porn. And both are stressed out over their teenage children: Nic, because her perfect child is about to leave for college; Jules, because Laser (Josh Hutcherson) has been brooding and hanging out with bad company.
Their anxieties increase when the kids decide to find their parents' sperm donor — which suggests that what's missing in the ménage is a strong masculine presence. Indeed, played by Mark Ruffalo at his laid-back, raspy best (though with an unnerving resemblance to Dennis Miller), Paul the donor fills the role smoothly and ingratiates himself into the family.
Although an unapologetic bachelor with a taste for younger women, he's more boyish than smarmy. The owner of a politically correct organic restaurant, he's an easygoing fount of street-smart wisdom and moral support who's cool enough to own a vinyl-record collection but confident (or canny) enough to claim Mitchell's Blue as one of his favorite discs. The kids see in him, maybe, the father they never had, and Jules sees in him a confidant who respects her individuality and her attempts to start a career of her own.
Only Nic demurs, and Bening is at her least appealing and her most impressive as her character grows more jealous, bitter, and inebriated. Rightly or wrongly, she sees the stranger threatening to usurp this already fragile household. Could Cholodenko be suggesting that maybe the gay-marriage opponents have a point, that something essential is missing in such an arrangement? Or is her point that, regardless of gender configuration, marriage in general is subject to change, loss, and human weakness? Maybe the most subversive aspect of this Kids is how conservative its family values actually are.