The relationship at the center of “The Kids Are All Right” is unorthodox — spoiler alert, they’re lesbians — but it’s depicted more realistically than most movie relationships are. It turns out you can be loving and committed and still have disagreements. There isn’t always one partner who’s immature and selfish while the other is saintly; sometimes both parties are flawed. Astonishing but true!
I do wish the conflicts in “The Kids Are All Right” were less formulaic, though. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko (“Laurel Canyon”) and written by her and Stuart Blumberg (“Keeping the Faith”), this relationship drama is sophisticated and funny, but once you get past the unusual premise and the fact that the main couple is realistically portrayed, there’s nothing surprising about it. Is it enough that it gets a few things right that most movies get wrong?
The lesbians in question are Nic (Annette Bening), a serious doctor who drinks too much wine, and Jules (Julianne Moore), a somewhat flighty landscape designer. They have two children, 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson), conceived by artificial insemination from an anonymous sperm donor. It was the same donor both times; I guess they liked the way the first kid turned out. Personally, I’d be interested in a little variety, but that’s just me.
The kids, now curious to meet their biological father, track him down. His name is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), he was 19 when he made his donations, and now he’s the proprietor of a hippie-dippy organic-food restaurant. He’s the sort of self-absorbed charmer who charms people by pretending not to be self-absorbed. He is delighted to learn his contributions were put to good use by a lesbian couple. “I love lesbians!” he says.
This leads to a series of fascinating encounters, all of them slightly awkward and very funny, in a natural, unforced kind of way. First Joni and Laser meet their dad. They come away with very different impressions of him, which makes sense considering the different needs and expectations that teenage boys and girls have for their fathers. Then comes the inevitable dinner with the kids, the moms, and the dad, and once again Paul strikes everyone differently. Over time, everyone’s feelings shift, evolving subtly as they get to know Paul better and like or don’t like what they find.
Then there are complications in Nic and Jules’ marriage. Paul is the catalyst, but this is the sort of midlife crisis that many partnerships face at some point. It has caused polarizing reactions among viewers. The film either sets the gay rights movement back several years by indulging in negative stereotypes; or it moves it forward by asserting that to truly be treated equally means to sometimes be portrayed as weak and foolish, just like everyone else. For what it’s worth, Cholodenko is gay, partnered, and had a son by an anonymous sperm donor. If you want to get concerned about what the filmmaker’s “agenda” was, consider that she seems to have done her research.
But the film isn’t strident or political, except insofar as it suggests that a family situation like this one can be perfectly normal (i.e., with ups, downs, and frequent messiness). The kids haven’t been traumatized by having two moms. They are, as the title says, all right. It’s the grown-ups — Nic, Jules, and Paul — who have issues.
Bening and Moore have played a variety of roles in their careers, so it’s a testament to their abilities that they can portray a long-term lesbian couple as authentically as they do. We instantly accept that Jules and Nic have been together for two decades, that they love and respect one another, that each knows the other’s foibles and blind spots. The screenplay provides many subtle touches to paint the picture, describing the way spouses communicate, but it ultimately falls on Bening and Moore to make the characters seem real. And they are real enough for us to relate to, even if our own relationships are very different from this one.
B (1 hr., 44 min.; )