“And then, ya know, my tongue started working again …”
You can call writer/director Lisa Cholodenko’s new movie The Kids Are All Right a look into the world of a lesbian-raised family and you’d be correct. But it is so much more than just an exercise on showing the expansive definition of ‘nuclear family’. All the hardships, joys, struggles, and successes of marriage, raising kids, and loving those around you are included. The fact this family has two matriarchs only allows for the plot point of introducing the sperm donor into the fold. If a man and a woman need to utilize artificial insemination, the child won’t have any reason to question where he/she came from unless the parents came clean. Being raised with two mothers, however, makes it a little harder to conceal the truth. Once the ‘Birds and the Bees’ yarn is out of the bag, kids are going to wonder who played father in their conception. Yet, as with all adoption cases, just because someone is biologically connected to you, it doesn’t mean they are family.
That powerful word, family, is the over-protective, bread-winning, wine loving nurse (Annette Bening); the easy-going, free spirit, stay-at-home Mom (Julianne Moore); the highly intelligent, overly hard on herself, like mother like daughter (Mia Wasikowska); and the rebellious, athletic, well-meaning, but curious son (Josh Hutcherson). Mr. Organic Food, world-traveling, self-proclaimed ‘Doer’ (Mark Ruffalo) who happened to donate his DNA when 19-years old, strapped for cash, and harboring a desire to help the less fortunate doesn’t figure into the equation. Or at least he doesn’t until graduating from figurative to literal elephant in the room thanks to Joni. A summer away from going to college, she loves her Moms, but would be lying if not excited to get away from under their thumb and be independent. It’s actually Laser, though, (with a name like that and deviant tendencies, you can tell right away Moore carried him to term and Bening his sister), who talks her into making the Cryo-Bank inquiry, bringing Paul out of the shadows. Unsurprisingly, it ends up being Joni who forms the strongest bond, making a secret one-off visit into two months of unforeseen chaos.
Perhaps Paul performed his service for good and not the $60 a pop paycheck. A wandering soul, never able to stand still and follow the cookie-cutter life so many aspire towards, he quit school and journeyed to find himself—educating through experience and literature rather than lectures and regimented schedules. The path to owning a self-sustaining restaurant with food grown in his own co-op is a natural progression, as well as the disarming yet selfish way he holds himself. A genuinely nice guy, both Laser and Bening’s Nic make mention of his ego—ever-present if not overbearingly so. He has spent two decades living for him, dating when necessary, and never allowing someone close enough to take root, a fear of commitment obviously at play. But the way he reacts to his ‘children’, the way his face lights up while around them, and the actions he soon undertakes, as despicable and not completely his fault as they are, show a desire for stability and love. Maybe he hasn’t gone it alone for the challenge or satisfaction; maybe he did it because he was scared. Stumbling into a ready-made family is the perfect situation of having it all without the heavy lifting to get there.
And it is that mindset that risks destroying everything. Emotions are already pent up with the huge transitions looming. Joni is about to leave and Laser is beginning to fall into delinquent behavior while Nic envelopes herself in work, neglecting her wife in the process, as Moore’s Jules attempts to start a new business. The bonds are strained and at the precipice of complete collapse, but their routines are too ingrained, love always becoming a fall back position of security until Paul enters, introducing a new, exciting option. Here is a figure with the ability to project all those feelings these children have that don’t align with their mothers. Paul is the convenient excuse for obstinate behavior and reason to be away from home for hours. They can look at the other side of life and take a taste of new adventures, heeding advice from the newcomer on ways to get their Moms to back off—an exercise that will only push the mothers to resent the intruder or catch the bug of change themselves. You can’t survive without being a little bit selfish, but if left unchecked, there is no better way to irreparably destroy the bonds of family.
The themes and story at play in The Kids Are All Right are very well constructed and achieved. Each character’s evolution is authentic, resonating on an emotional level that can be related to by anyone who has grown up with parents who care. But the twists and turns taken to bring a weakened unit to the place of strength and pure love reached, need conflict—more extreme than just a father figure being introduced and taking mother/child time away—to be written in for adversity’s sake. I by no means think the actions portrayed should have been excised since they are a big part of how it all progresses, but I do feel the middle section drags. We begin to understand the massive airing of grievances to come, causing the repetition of unsavory events to be a bit much, stalling when ready to watch it all go down, seeing if relationships can be repaired or not.
No matter how slow the pacing gets, however, the performances from Bening, Moore, and Ruffalo are superb. Each plays their role to perfection, using the stereotypes they are given, but also adding a sense of humanity and fallibility. As for the kids, well, they are indeed all right. We’ve all gone through the transition of teenage years, so we can understand the desire to let loose and be a kid despite the looming responsibility of the future. Hutcherson and Wasikowska are great at showing both the conformity and rebellion. No matter what happens as a result of bringing Paul into their world, one can’t deny the fact he was the catalyst for necessary change, albeit through less than desirable means. Love is strange and its possession of normalcy ever changing. Heartbreak is a part of the game, so while you may begrudge characters for what they do, it’s a little harder to completely dismiss their motivations. Thankfully, though, Cholodenko allows for a silent representation of hope for a stranger—in the guise of a floppy hat—as well as a blatant sign of affection for those familiar. If there is one thing about families, they somehow find a way to survive.
The Kids Are All Right 7/10 | ★ ★ ★
 (l-r) Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson, Mia Wasikowska and Mark Ruffalo star in Lisa Cholodenko’s THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Suzanne Tenner
 Annette Bening (left) and Julianne Moore (right) star as Nic and Jules in Lisa Cholodenko’s THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Suzanne Tenner