One of the basic, winning feats of The Kids Are All Right, the reason it just might be the thinking person’s feel-good hit of the summer, is the naturalness of its dealings with material that mainstream America might deem odd. Here, we have an “alternative lifestyle” and “anomalous” family scenario, with two lesbian mothers of teens (Julianne Moore and Annette Bening), suddenly grappling with the intervention of a bit player—their sperm donor, unseen for many years.
Mark Ruffalo is the right guy for that job, as a scruffy, mid-life free spirit, summarily flung into a family situation by the curiosity of “his” teenaged children (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson). The experience awakens his dormant familial desires, but he also crosses lines of decency and fidelity, resulting in some fresh and funny sex scenes with an especially sensuous, vulnerable, and ultimately self-realizing Moore.
Writer/director Lisa Cholodenko manages to destigmatize and demagnetize the particulars of her narrative puzzle, giving the whole film a healthy mix of focus and raw, fluid naturalism. Composer Carter Burwell’s typically creative atmospherics work empathetic wonders, as do carefully chosen pop songs (including Bening’s telling multi-key dinner table version of Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want”).
Cholodenko has made provocative, off-to-the-left films before, including High Art and Laurel Canyon, but her latest rises to higher levels of balance between fringe culture and American life. She has considerable help in the powerful performance by the “moms,” Moore and Bening—her best work since American Beauty, another “other” side of the suburbs movie. From a location standpoint, The Kids Are All Right is, like Laurel Canyon, a refreshingly different L.A. story. Here, no characters are linked to show business. The movie poster’s shot of a picnic with the L.A. skyline in the background actually is in the film itself, which could take place in virtually any city in America.
And that implicit point is embedded in the narrative: The family situation and family values here are more than all right; they’re full of angst, hope, humor, temptation, mid-life wooziness, the tearful off-to-college rite-of-passage, and other signs of family life in the largest sense.