Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Kids Are All Right Is A Clever, Depressing, Complicated Film Worth Seeing!

The Good: Great acting, Interesting characters, Generally decent plot, DVD bonus features.
The Bad: Oppressive plot and mood overall, Some predictability.
The Basics: The Kids Are All Right is worth seeing, but is hard to get excited about seeing multiple times.

As the Oscars race to air, I am catching up on the last few Best Picture nominees that I did not manage to see this past year. Arguably, the one that I was actually the most excited about was The Kids Are All Right. The film got good buzz when it came out, so much so that I was surprised it did not stay in theaters locally long enough for me to see it there and so much so that I was surprised by how quickly the film came to DVD. Even so, when my library got it in and my wife and I had a chance to watch it, I was enthusiastic about the experience. And now that the film is over . . . I am glad I saw it, but I am not eager to see it again, well, pretty much ever.

The thing about The Kids Are All Right is that it is almost completely depressing in a way that accurately captures real life. The truth is, after finishing the movie, I had a similar reaction to my reaction upon seeing Brokeback Mountain, which was simply to think, "At some younger, more depressed part of my life, I probably would have loved this." As it stands, The Kids Are All Right is a wonderful movie for those who are enthusiasts of independent film, LGBT films or simply complicated dramas. But what The Kids Are All Right does so well is mimic real life in a way that makes it almost unnecessary and it is hard to imagine getting excited about watching the movie a second time.

Nic and Jules are a lesbian couple living with their daughter, Joni, and son, Laser in a pretty normal life. When Joni turns eighteen, she has the right to get information on the sperm donor who helped create her. While Joni is not at all curious or interested in such things, Laser is and rather than have him wait years more to find out, she looks up Paul. Paul is an organic farmer who is fine with meeting the kids and their meeting is cordial and awkward for all three. As Nic, who is uptight, and Jules try to parent Laser - whom they fear is getting into an experimental relationship with his overbearing friend Clay - and Joni, who is leaving for college at the end of summer, their relationship begins to feel serious strain. That sense of strain is exacerbated when the pair meets Paul.

Paul, for his part, is pretty laid back, but in his attempt to be supportive to Jules - by supporting her landscaping business by throwing some work her way - he finds himself deeply entangled in Nic and Jules's family, not just getting to know the children he never knew were made using his donation. The addition of Paul to the family upsets the balance and soon the impending departure of Joni is not necessarily the worst the family has to deal with.

First, what The Kids Are All Right does exceptionally well is illustrate the complicated nature of human sexuality. Unlike simplified versions of human relationships, the characters in The Kids Are All Right are not set as absolutes. So, Nic and Jules have gay male porn they use to get aroused together with when they watch porn and Paul is not a soulless guy who is just having sex with any of the young women around him without any sense of growth or complication. None of the characters are archetypes and as a result, some who reject a more Kinsean notion of sexuality might be deeply upset by how Jules behaves as the film goes on. For my part, I was more upset by her lack of fidelity than the person she has an affair with. Either way, writers Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Bloomberg have a mature sense of the complicated nature of both relationships and human behavior.

Cholodenko, who also directed the film, has a pretty strong idea of how to capture great acting without telegraphing it. She focuses on characters without lingering so long as to make the viewer uncomfortable. So, while there are plenty of uncomfortable moments in The Kids Are All Right, they are thematically uncomfortable, not visually difficult to watch. Unlike many recent films that utilize multiple annoying techniques to try to shake up the viewer, Cholodenko filmed The Kids Are All Right in an appropriately straightforward way to allow the story to tell itself.

And while the characters may do some things that make the viewer cringe - this is a film with infidelity and graphic enough sex to make those squeamish about such things squirm - what is unassailable is the acting. Mia Wasikowska continues to deliver as Joni with a performance that clearly differs from her performance in Alice In Wonderland (reviewed here!). Similarly, Josh Hutcherson does well as Laser, with a perfectly awkward sense of body language that perfectly characterizes a teenager.

As one who has seen Annette Bening in a lot of movies, it was hard not to see her playing Nic as an update or derivation of her performance in American Beauty (reviewed here!), but she plays the uptight, on-edge woman so well it is easy to see why Cholodenko would want her for the role and how she would get nominated for her performance. Julianne Moore is fearless as Jules and her portrayal giver her the opportunity to go through almost the full range of human emotions, which she embodied wonderfully. Moore gives moments where she plays Jules as so conflicted it is impossible not to have one's heart ache for her character.

It is Mark Ruffalo who shines in The Kids Are All Right. I have seen Ruffalo in several things, but this is the first work I recall actually liking him in. Ruffalo abandons the role of Hollywood good-looking guy for a role with substance as Paul. Paul is nervous, quiet and often unassuming and Ruffalo delivers each aspect with a simplicity and realism that makes one feel like they are watching their grocer or next door neighbor on the screen. Ruffalo's deliveries are distinctive for their awkward, nervous quality and the viewer honestly feels they are watching a real person who is struggling with the changes he is going through. Ruffalo makes great use out of the fact that his character has an arc and it is a real journey watching him.

On DVD, The Kids Are All Right features a commentary track and featurettes on the making of the movie. Honestly, I was so depressed after watching the film once I would not sit through it the second time, even to review the commentary track. The Kids Are All Right is very well-made and it tells an engaging story, but the realism of the complicated relationships make it difficult to watch and almost pointless for those who are in actually complicated relationships in real life!

For other works that focus on LGB characters, please check out my reviews of:
Strawberry And Chocolate
Six Feet Under
But I'm A Cheerleader!


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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