By James Madden.
Kids, parents, mums, dads, brothers, sisters. Family speaks volumes about our makeup. Who we are is not only determined by our genes, but also by the household in which we grew up in. Nature, nurture and the notion of family are constructs of interminable influence and have been depicted endlessly since the beginning of storytelling. However, every once in a while, a piece of work comes along that dissects, probes, and presents an alternative. Enter The Kids are All Right.
Following a highly lauded and praised debut with High Art in 1998 and accomplished sophomore follow-up with Laurel Canyon in 2002, writer/director Lisa Cholodenko does not disappoint with the highly anticipated The Kids Are All Right.
Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are the two proud mums of Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Joni has just turned 18 and has the legal option of finding her sperm donor/biological father. Joni’s hesitation and protection over “mums’ feelings” are quickly put aside by the less apprehensive 15 year-old Laser. The kids organise a meeting with “donor dad” Paul, an organic fruit purveyor who also doubles as the disrupting catalyst for the film’s duration.
Although Paul’s appearance is initially the cause of much anxiety, his emergence shakes the characters from their very settled domestic lives; for better and for worse. Painfully awkward encounters between the kids and Paul eventually progresses into something warmer and paternal. The anxiety shared by Nic and Jules also evolves when Jules works on Paul’s backyard in her latest career move as a landscape/garden designer. Even Nic’s apprehension is met with a Joni Mitchell dinner table sing-a-long with Paul.
The narrative cause and effect chain takes the rest of the film into familiar and yet unpredictable territory. However it is not the chain of events in the film that are fascinating, but the flawed and multi-faceted characters within. These are not perfect people, and while dysfunction is a familiar screen theme, The Kids are All Right deals with people who are charting through problems, rather than dealing with dysfunction.
Cholodenko encapsulates a modern family with two lesbian parents. However, the film is still about a family with problems, and the sexuality of its parents plays a large part, but not to exhibit behaviour as anomalous and unfamiliar. It is this very way of displaying the characters that shows an unseen family portrait.
Annette Bening and Julianne Moore give fearless performances as the dual matriarchs. Moore displays the vulnerability of a woman whose relationship has become habitual and complacent. When faced with a mysterious and exciting prospect, Moore allows Jules to become an adrenaline junkie, giving her settled and commonplace existence credence for unpredictability.
On the other end of the spectrum, Bening presents an authoritative, shrewd and conversely unstable creature in Nic. Bening is radiant and gives one of her best performances to date; reminiscent of her American Beauty performance. While Carolyn Burnham and Nic are very different women, both are played with absolute humanity by Bening. Similar to the “Don’t Rain on My Parade” car sing-a-long scene in American Beauty, Bening’s shining moment comes at a dinner table rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want”. Most importantly, Bening conjures the yearning and desire of a middle aged woman, which hasn’t flown away with time. I hope to God that Bening’s performance isn’t ignored and becomes highly recognised come awards season next year.
Mark Ruffalo plays the most difficult role in the film. His job is to provide much comic relief, and yet be charming, handsome, masculine and a passively threatening diversion to a closely knit family. He pulls this off successfully, is funnier and warmer than he has been in possibly any film, and also manages to sneak in a few provocative sex scenes that the ladies will enjoy.
The kids are played wonderfully by the talented and poised Mia Wasikowska, and youthful and yearning Josh Hutcherson. Playing opposite such seasoned veterans as Ruffalo, Bening and Moore is not easy, but these young actors manage to hold their own, and are on the right track to creating a long career.
Writer/Director Lisa Cholodenko, co writer Stuart Blumberg and the wonderful cast create a family that is almost impossible not to fall in love with. Imperfect and problematic characters are presented as normal humans who make mistakes. Their dishonest betrayals, hurtful secrets, and indiscretions are relatable and understandable and are displayed as humourous and poignant in one of the best films of the year.
USA, dir: Lisa Cholodenko, 105 mins.
The Kids Are All Right screened to sold out shows at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. The film is released Thursday 2nd September, distributed by Hopscotch Films.