Lisa Cholodenko’s new movie The Kids Are All Right looks good on paper, but on closer inspection the cracks are more and more obvious. It is getting almost universal critical acclaim, but, though I like the movie, I don’t think it is anything special.
Cholodenko’s script (written with Stuart Blumberg) tells the story of longtime partners Nic and Jules (played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore). They have raised a boy and a girl, both having been impregnated from the same sperm donor at a clinic. Joni (Mia Wasikowska) has just turned 18 and is preparing to leave for college. Her brother Laser (Josh Hutchinson) wants her to contact the clinic from which their mothers obtained the sperm now that she is 18. He can’t call since he is only 15, but he wants to meet their biological father. Joni finally relents and while she is impressed by Paul, a scruffy restaurant owner, Laser is less than thrilled. Paul (Mark Ruffalo) is not the father figure Laser imagined he could bond with over sports and other father-son things only people who haven’t grown up with a father imagine fathers and sons do. Slowly Paul builds relationships with Joni and Laser and hires Jules to landscape his backyard. Is he making a play to push out overbearing Nic and take over the family? At first Nic thinks so and is resistant to her family’s acceptance of Paul.
I enjoyed watching the relationships and characters develop through the movie. Nic is a perfectionist who nags others into doing what she thinks they should be doing while Jules is more free spirited. Though they love each other they have reached a point in their relationship that many face in middle age: stasis. Nic has grown comfortable with the life she has, rarely acknowledging the role of or appreciating Jules. Annette Bening is wonderful in the part, completely believable as she bottles her emotions, though we see them lying just beneath the surface in her eyes. Julianne Moore, despite all her acclaim, is not an actor I have ever really enjoyed; her style is often over the top and, for me, grating, but here I think she slid into the role of Jules well. And she and Bening played opposite each other extremely well. We watch them and know that they have been together for 20 years. We can read their history in glances, looks and smiles they give each other. This is really wonderful acting.
The movie starts to come undone with the wholly oppressive plot. Everything done, everything said, everything eaten, everything worn is in service of getting us from one place to another. There are no organic moments, no time to dilly-dally. It’s as if Nic wrote the script and is ushering us along as quickly and economically as possible. No one has friends or other relationships except those that will help push our characters along to where they need to get by the end. One would think Nic and Jules might have friends, neighbors, coworkers, a mailman, anything. They have one dinner with another couple, but they only serve as a catalyst for Nic and Jules to have a fight about Paul. Joni has a couple friends she plays Scrabble with but they add little. (Though Kunal Sharma as Jai is wonderfully reserved and sensitive as the boy nursing a secret crush on her. I wish Cholodenko had done something with his character.) Laser has exactly one friend even though he talks about all the team sports he plays, and that friend is only there so he can grow and learn to think for himself. One would think Laser might have some interaction with his teammates, but they are conveniently nestled away in their homes during this emotionally eventful, but activity free, summer vacation. This is symptomatic of all the characters in the movie. No one has any problems or issues or hobbies or chores or anything. Everyone is neatly contained in the little bubble of the plot. This is not a fatal flaw, but it did limit my enjoyment of the picture.
I wonder if the critical success of the movie has something to do with the timing of the story. Don’t get me wrong, this is a fine movie with some nice moments, but would there have been this kind of outpouring of praise if the couple weren’t lesbian? Maybe. I can’t say for sure, but it made me think of the success of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? in 1967. The Kids Are All Right is a better movie (by leaps and bounds), but Stanley Kramer’s movie about interracial romance struck a chord at the right time and place. The movie is pretty hokey: the girl marrying Sidney Poitier is ridiculously optimistic, naïve, and, let’s face it, dumb. If I had been one of her parents I would have been worried about any man she brought home because she clearly wasn’t able to make rational decisions that had any relation to the real world. But critics ate it up, perhaps subconsciously anxious that a criticism of the movie would have been construed as projected racism. (Where were they are few years earlier for a much superior, more emotionally raw movie on the same subject, One Potato, Two Potato?)
I’m not suggesting today’s critics are afraid of being called homophobic, but I wonder if they are being dazzled by the novelty of the story and its characters and are overlooking its flaws. I know initial enthusiasm for the idea of some movies can draw us in and, if it is competent, can have us proclaiming a new American classic. I think this is what happened with mediocre to OK movies like The Sixth Sense, Reservoir Dogs, and (dare I say it?) The Big Lebowski.
In the end Cholodenko does deliver a nice movie containing a message about the need for balance within ourselves and in our relationships. I just wish she hadn’t been so efficient in telling the story. I wanted a little more messiness, a little more complication. A little more of the organic flow of Robert Altman and a little less of the pre-planned formal structure of Alfred Hitchcock.