“The Kids Are All Right” is a striking film, though not due to any type of emotional hurricanes or drastic turns of fate. It’s frequently mesmerizing in the manner it observes a longstanding domestic commitment, following a married couple through the rigors of parenting teens, the strain of intimacy issues, and the irritation of habits.
Writer/director Lisa Cholodenko brilliantly observes a homestead rocked by insecurity and complacency, making a vital, emotionally sound statement on the fragility of feelings and the strength of commitment, regardless of sexual orientation.
Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a married couple struggling with household turmoil caused by their teenaged kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska, “Alice in Wonderland”) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson, “Journey to the Center of the Earth”). Curious about their history, the siblings locate Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a hippy-dippy organic dude who long ago donated sperm to a clinic for some extra bucks.
Paul, delighted with the opportunity to meet the teens, takes to a fatherly role quickly, invading the family with his permissive way, which drives control-freak Nic crazy, while Jules takes a more sexually responsive path, succumbing to Paul’s other hobby: seducing women.
Through her work on the pictures “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon,” Cholodenko has revealed a fascination for nasty acts of relationship disruption. “Kids Are All Right” transfers the action from a slightly hedonistic history to the suburbs, meeting Nic and Jules as they enjoy a functional relationship ripe with communication, happiness, and family activity.
The introductory scenes with the couple inside the married zone are tremendously observed, capturing the routine of commitment, which both amplifies and mummifies feelings of love and passion. The script (co-written by Stuart Blumberg) treats the lesbians as any other couple, with only their choice in adult movies (men on men) separating them from the neighbors — a balanced marital representation that made me root for Cholodenko, who doesn’t feel the need to blast the same sex angle at top volume to attract attention. The lived-in quality to the filmmaking is outstanding.
As men typically are, Paul is the spoiler character, assuming he’s been handed a free pass to join a family that’s not his, through kids he doesn’t know in the least. He’s obliging, scruffily sexy (looking as though he stepped out of Nic and Jules’s porno DVDs), and unaware of his heart’s desire, making him dangerous to Nic’s tightly wound sense of command.
Ruffalo delivers the correct performance beats as the hazy object of desire, but Paul is a troubling character to process, and perhaps less explored in the finished film than Cholodenko was intending. He’s a bit of a snake. A sympathetic snake, but an all-hands serpent nonetheless, using his looks and manly, deodorant-free presence to summon chaos he doesn’t fully understand. The seducer finds he has a taste for the family life, but his acts of invasion are tossed aside in the end, which makes a final point for Paul, just not a satisfying one.
Better is the one-sided tug of war between Nic and Jules, who express themselves with delightful character nuance, backed by confident, natural performances. Their story is founded in Cholodenko’s real life, and that reflection is the film’s greatest achievement, bringing an authentic sense of soul to the couple, who struggle, fail, and love with a realism that takes “The Kids Are All Right” somewhere amazing, beyond the dull routine of broken hearts and cliched dysfunction.