July 24, 2011

The Kids Are All Right

I'll be up-front, dear readers, and let you know that this review is riddled with spoilers. So if you have not yet seen The Kids Are All Right (2010) and are planning to, you may want to read cautiously.

Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play a couple who each had a kid via artificial insemination (from the same donor). The movie picks up where the elder sibling (Mia Wasikowska) has just graduated from high school. Just eighteen and trying to embrace her newly acquired "adulthood," she decides to contact her biological father (played by Mark Ruffalo), at the urging of her younger brother (Josh Hutcherson). The donor-dad wins the kids over, and even one of the moms (Moore) (and by winning over I mean sleeping with her). Suddenly, Bening feels threatened by what she sees as an intrusive re-emergence of this man's involvement in their family.

This is a comedy-drama that accepts the idea of a non-traditional family unit without trying to preach about it to us. I suspect viewers will take this either as a sign of cultural evolution or devolution, depending on their beliefs. I could evaluate the movie's morality, but then I'd have to go back and evaluate the morality of all the other movies I've watched, and the books I've read, and the music I've listened to, and frankly, I'm not willing to admit to that much hypocrisy. (Besides, we may not want to admit it, but one of the reasons we like movies is because they force us to deal with difficult subjects.)

If The Kids Are All Right pushes unwanted and disagreeable values on its audience, then there's nothing new in that. We aren't meant to agree with everything that's put before us, and I think the responsibility is ours to figure out our own beliefs. When movies confront complex, controversial social issues like gay marriage, perhaps we can be happy on the occasion that they do so with minimal preachiness.

The little fling between Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo actually backs the whole social message into a corner regarding the nature of sexuality, and whether or not it's a fixed construct or in flux. The movie sloughs that off out of spinelessness, and Ruffalo's character is promptly cut off from the kids.

Despite the considerable plot flub of basically writing Ruffalo's character out of the story at the end, I enjoyed the movie. It has some hysterically funny moments, and the actors succeed well. They rise above both the movie's inclination toward sentiment and its need to be hip by pretending it's not attracted to the sentimental. Julianne Moore is one of the best actresses working today, and she gives a wonderful performance in this that was overlooked in favor of Annette Bening, who turns bitchiness into an art form the way Mary Tyler Moore turned bitter, passive agressive detachment into an art form in Ordinary People. (Bening's character isn't just bitchy though. She's understandably threatened, and you do feel for her, particularly during the dinner scene where she finds out about the infidelity, after she's finally warmed up to liking Ruffalo's character).

Likewise, Mark Ruffalo is one of the best actors we've got. In this he's less pathetic than usual. He's not aimless or compulsively abusing drugs and breaking the law like in You Can Count On Me or What Doesn't Kill You. And the "kids" turn in fine performances, even though their characters' involvement in the story gets a bit out of focus as the plot unfolds). Actually, I think the title is the most overtly preachy thing about the movie. It's an assurance that no one in the real world can hold onto, and one that the characters in this movie aren't dumb enough to hold up as some kind of idealistic mantra. However, The fact that Ruffalo's character is so mistreated is the real thorn in this movie's side. All the story threads are plausible and absorbing and often very amusing, and then at the end you feel you've been cheated out of a vital resolution between father and children (even if he's had no involvement in their lives up to this point, it seems the wheels have been incontrovertibly set in motion). Cutting him off is a slight that reeks of evasiveness. But then, they're trying to preserve something that he threatens to dismantle. (Didn't he?)

The Kids Are All Right traipses through a minefield of political correctness only to chicken out in the end. It garnered a lot of positive reviews because people interpreted its non-preachiness as an act of daring bravado from Hollywood. In fact, the real bravery is in the way the movie makes hash out of everyone's idea of stability: both the gays and the straights are so screwed up in this movie that you think, maybe everyone can get along in the end. But Ruffalo's character turns into a sort of punching bag against traditionalism, even though he's not traditional in any way. And the others are held up as martyrs for the cause of progress. Well, okay. But, I really felt bad for Mark Ruffalo's character. I think you got that though.

The movie is superficially hip because of its gay context. Without it, this would be another bland family drama. What's good about The Kids Are All Right are the characters (and the actors), and the way the movie complicates their relationships. Those complications are like a fun detour, derailing the movie's march toward sentiment. They're a welcome shock to the heart of stability. But at its heart, The Kids Are All Right is a gooey family sitcom about mothers not wanting their children to grow up. Nothing too earth-shattering in that. 

Written by the director, Lisa Cholodenko, and Stuart Blumberg. Also starring YaYa DeCosta, Kunal Sharma, Eddie Hassell, and Zosia Mamet.

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