Small, well-meaning family comedies with dramatic heft are hard to do well. The audience has to believe all the family relationships, the specific circumstances that make this family unique, and the struggles they have to overcome. “The Kids Are All Right” does so much right that you’ll hardly notice when the film falls short of the innovation demonstrated in the first few scenes.
Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a committed same sex couple with two teenage children, 18 year old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and 15 year old Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Both Nic and Jules used the same sperm donor and each gave birth to one of the children. The birth relationship plays out with Nic being over-protective of Joni and Jules being relaxed with Laser. Laser convinces Joni to contact the donation agency to find their real birth father. She winds up calling Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a single restaurateur and organic farmer with a very different life than Nic and Jules. When the parents discover that Paul has been contacted, they insist on trying to incorporate him into their lives, to great comedic and dramatic effect.
The casting of this film is perfect, down to the smallest roles in the film. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore act like an old married couple, bridging the gap between uptight doctor Nic and laidback dreamchaser Jules in a believable way. Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson sell believable angst, joy, and rebellion for a pair of teenagers going through a major life change. Mark Ruffalo has the strong disadvantage of playing a character that acts as a foil for most of the film. To his credit, he adds so much with his physicality and speaking style for the role that he turns Paul into a believable character. Even briefly appearing actors, like YaYa DaCosta as Paul’s lover or Eddie Hassel as Josh’s bad friend, make the most of their screen time.
Such consistency in performances has to be credited to writer/director Lisa Cholodenko. Her influence is felt in every frame, though it’s never over-bearing. This is not to be confused with some showy auteur effort that places the director’s conceit as the alpha and the omega of the film. Cholodenko shows a quiet restraint in building the relationships between the characters. Of special note is the strong but subtle camera work. Nic, Jules, and Paul all get a slightly different camera style to build up their personalities. Nic’s scenes are always very rigid and static, while Jules’ scenes move a lot more. Paul has more physical action, so he is almost always met with a moving steadicam shot to track his every step. It feels like every decision is the right decision to bring out the best in the screenplay.
To Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Bloomberg’s credit, “The Kids Are All Right” is an enjoyable look at a non-traditional family. Where the film falters is in the repetition of the family’s problems. It’s not enough for Jules and Nic to make big mistakes one time; they do them over and over for a good forty minutes of the film’s running time. I understand the dramatic effect of the repetition. Cholodenko and Bloomberg are trying to emphasize how big a rut Jules and Nic are in and how the stress of Joni going off to college is affecting them, but the plot points literally repeat beat for beat. Nic’s mistakes have a little more variance because she isn’t doing to exact same thing every time she’s on screen. For a film that is so smart, funny, and inventive, the over-reliance on repetition is a minor disappointment in an otherwise stellar picture.
As hard as it is to do the realistic family comedy well, “The Kids Are All Right” works as a perfect example of why this kind of film needs the right screenplay, the right cast, and the right light touch from the director. It’s a beautiful and hopeful film worth watching.