The Kids are All Right – 2010
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko
Starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson
Written by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg
The myth of Pandora’s Box has been portrayed as a misogynist rant against the women’s womb over the last 140 years or so. True or not, there are two things that it’s opening represents: evil and hope. The evil could be the fear of the unknown, or, just plain bad stuff. The hope, well, we all know what hope is. In The Kids are All Right both the hope and the potential for bad is represented by, of all things, a man. That man, Paul (Ruffalo), is described as “self-satisfied” by two members of the family. This says more about the family than it does about Paul.
The family, in this case, are Nic (Bening) and Jules (Moore), two lesbians married to each other, and their biological children (carrying one each to term) by sperm donor Paul, Laser (Hutcherson) and Joni (Wasikowaska). A first view of their family unit finds the Laser hanging out with a bad element, dabbling in drugs. The parents, so hung up on analyzing his sexuality, take the changes they have seen to be signs that he might be gay. They, you can guess, would not have a problem with his being gay. They just don’t want him being gay with the wrong element. Joni, meanwhile, has just turned 18, graduated, and is preparing for college. From her demeanor, you can tell the effects of having two well-intentioned but at times overbearing mothers; she is a little gun-shy. Nic and Jules, for their part, are caught in a cordial, somewhat pleasant rut. Their disagreements are as often stated as their acts of affection. Those acts, at times, can be labored. It could go on like this for years.
That is, until Laser, curious to discover his biological father, sends his sister out to find out who he is. Paul, a free spirit in his 40’s who owns an organic foods restaurant
and gets on well with the ladies, is more than willing to come into the lives of his biological children, but laid back enough to let them make the moves. When a discussion with his parents goes awry, Laser inadvertently reveals that he and his sister have met with their dad. In the spirit of open-mindedness, Nic and Jules offer for Paul to come over for dinner.
From here, things take a sideways bent. Paul seems to be a good thing for the kids. He allows Laser stability enough to know what a good friend is and when one is just bad to have around. Joni, however, vents her frustrations with the smothering she has received and discovers with Paul’s help that it is their job to be that way, and it is her job to break from it and establish herself. Jules, suffering inside from an inability to ditch the feeling of a lack of professional accomplishment, opens a business relationship with Paul, and that transgresses into something more. Yes, I said transgresses. Nic, for her part, feels the structure of her family starting to break open. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it sure feels bad; kind of like being the bug in a Kafka story.
What happens next, I will leave for the viewer, but suffice to say, there will be tears.
The genius of this story is it leaves the politics behind and shows, in a mostly successful way, that marriage, or unions, have pitfalls and growth issues no matter how the units are comprised. There is a certain comfort in the cycle of ritual, and when the bough breaks, and the cradle is rocked, it takes some strength to keep things together.
As for performances, I have never really taken a cotton to Bening and Moore as actresses. They always seemed more than a little shrill, and somewhat severe. Here, they seem comfortable and really within their element. The actors here seem a little more relaxed (I think the wine helps) and in each other, they have found a muse for their overly analytical natures: they look comfortable. In my somewhat diluted view, I think that most “progressive folk” have a tendency to over analyze. Here is no exception. When her son asks why the moms watch male gay porn, and immediately Jules breaks it down like it were out of a psychology book and Nic just rails about Laser staying out of their stuff. Seems like a good match.
Bening, for her part, really lays it out there. You see her make attempts to keep it all together and to break out a little. One sees and can sympathize with her position. She has to be a rock, and be flexible too. An almost impossible thing to ask, that Bening exemplifies to a tee. She could get an Oscar for this role.
Moore takes the role of beautiful loser and rolls with it. She has seldom seemed more at ease on the screen. It does not mean she seems like she is on some sort of trip. She just really envelops the character she is playing. Whenever I have seen her before, outside of Boogie Nights, all I could picture is someone who brought her daily stress to work with her. Not fun to watch then. Well done here.
As Joni, Wasikowska walks the thin line between childhood and being a full-fledged adult. She doesn’t seem ready for college, but has grown beyond the yoke of her
immediate family. Wasikowska keeps up the streak she started with Alice in Wonderland. Her face is so expressive, she does not need many words to get herself across to the viewer. She has a bright future ahead of her.
Laser is played with solemn aplomb by Hutcherson. His is the driving force behind the events of the story, and his is not yet old enough to drive. He views the world as cynically as any 15-year-old would, but still he wants to let it in. Hard to act this kind of thing out, but he is more than up to the task.
The pivotal role is Ruffalo’s Paul. He is everything they need and nothing that they want. An underrated A-list actor since 2000’s You Can Count on Me, he has successfully mixed smaller roles with major releases and been excellent every time out. Paul is portrayed as a complete person, pushing his way into the lives of four people, who, together, form a person, but on their own, are as messed up as anyone. He makes mistakes, sure, but he does not define himself by those mistakes. What he could do for this family, and what he does are not necessarily the same. His chemistry with Moore is very easy, probably due to the fact that they played a couple before on-screen (2008’s Blindess). To be sure, though, Ruffalo has the same chemistry with every actor he shares the screen with. He is like the opposite of Moore, in many ways. Every character he’s ever played begins and ends on the screen. Ruffalo is the classic chameleon and Paul is the classic chameleon’s role.
The screen writing, as well as the direction is free and clear of any of the afore-mentioned politics. If one can suspend their own beliefs on what a family should be, then much could be learned about the structure of cohesive family units. These folks are not trying to change you, which was a major failing of the makers of Brokeback Mountain. Instead, they are showing you a glimpse of how people are really living in the U.S., now, in our neighborhoods and in our towns. Much like the difference between a preachy Midnight Oil song, yelling at and often blaming the listener for the plight suffered by others, and Fast Car by Tracy Chapman, which just shows you the plight, Cholodenko and Blumberg show an advancement in film that will help go a way in portraying gay couples in a way most non-militants would prefer to be known: as people, warts and all.
That said, there are some aspects of the film that seemed unnecessary. That being the scenes of sexual intimacy between the Moms and the overuse of the movie they were watching. But then, this would be true of any film that lacked the imagination of using off-screen technique for those things. They could use another dose of The Philadelphia Story or Casablanca to see how it should be done. Also, the drug use by the son is conveniently turned off when the story needs to move forward. This is a little too convenient for life.
Pandora’s Box gets a bad rap, in the movie and in life. It represents something more fearful than evil and more daunting than hope. The real thing Pandora’s Box represents is change. Most people are not ready for change, and for good reason. Instability may be kind of a thrill ride, but it does not help pay the bills. Nic, the bread-winner, knows and respects this. She would prefer that the box would never have been opened. Jules, she jumped right in and became quickly overwhelmed. The two kids, responsible for finding and opening the box, sit back a bit, watch the adults, and plot their next move. The kids are all right.
(**** out of *****)