Good, great or just alright? Lisa Choldenko’s recent, acclaimed film is a little bit of each for Declan Tan
The Kids Are All Right is a film that, like its two main characters, gets stuck in its meandering second half. And although it seems a sincere and even genuine slice of family life at first, Lisa Cholodenko’s latest directorial effort stumbles into a disappointing conclusion.
Cholodenko has fashioned her burgeoning career from some sharp, often perceptive work that gradually slides into mediocrity and unfortunately it shows again here, particularly in the film’s opening. Through some observational humour and witty dialogue superbly played by all involved, we get to know the family as a strong one: they’ve been married for years, both their parents support their lifestyles, and they live in generally freethinking harmony. Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) play the married lesbian couple who, after having two children via the help of anonymous sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo), start to run into problems when their aforementioned Kids, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (MIa Wasikowska), decide to seek him out following Joni’s 18th birthday.
Then in steps Paul, the unpretentious and ingenuous donor, acted sensitively and with nuance by Ruffalo, most memorably in his introduction to the family in a tense barbecue scene. We come to realise that Paul represents everything opposed to what Nic has in plan for her children, namely higher education, direction and ambition. In a masterful scene in which, yes, awkward moments are the genesis of much of the humour, Nic and Paul come to intellectual blows when the latter suggests university isn’t for everyone. Nic casts disapproving looks across the table as she sips her perpetually full glass of wine. Secretly targeted for his easy-going attitude after their first meeting, Nic begins to conspire against what she sees as the subversive influence of a straightforward ‘dude’ such as Paul entering the fray. What we first understood to be an impregnable family unit then begins to slide further into fragility when Jules takes up working for Paul, who offers her a job landscaping his arid garden. This is where all the tightly woven good work in the film’s intro begins to be undone.
Co-written with Stuart Blumberg, Cholodenko’s script seems to want to keep the funnily observant streak running throughout, with the occasional witticism or clever line thrown in, but fails, as it ventures deeper into tedious soap opera territory. Platitudinous psychology is wantonly applied to the character of (among others) Jules: she wants attention or acceptance or validation or whatever it is, so she goes and sleeps with Paul. This is the main reason for the family’s rupture and we can’t help but feel something less than pity for characters we were once laughing with, as they cry themselves into the shower or pettily pick fights about who’s being supportive and who isn’t. And having sex with the wrong person is these people’s only problem, which makes this the sort of material that is hard to get stuck into emotionally or intellectually, with the word ‘bourgeois’ finding it hard to silence itself.
The initially softly played drama reverts into lazy melodrama, with the film failing to raise any questions that aren’t already presented in any other parentally focused movies. When Nic finds out about Jules’ infidelity the story boils down to a will-they-won’t-they stay together situation, and by this time any notion of interest has evaporated. But this isn’t to say the film is entirely forgettable. A sequence in which Nic discovers Jules’ hair in Paul’s shower during a dinner party, as she retakes her seat then sips from her wine glass, is deftly executed as it feeds in all of the claustrophobic nausea and sensuous acuity felt in a revelation such as that. It’s just that you can’t help but wish, for once, a film took its decent premise a little more seriously.