When I first began hearing about this project I was pretty skeptical, and in no small part because of the title. First of all, this title borrows from a song by The Who which has no relationship whatsoever on the film, but that’s a pretty trivial issue. The bigger problem is that this title implies a general lack of drama, after all, if the kids are indeed alright why there’s not going to be a lot of suspense about their fate. Maybe in some other situations that’s not really a problem but it speaks to the primary challenges of a movie like this, about a lesbian couple raising a pair of children, is going to face. If the message of the film is that GLBT couples are going to raise perfectly well adjusted children (a message I happen to agree with) then there’s not going to be a lot of conflict, well adjusted children are not very interesting. But my concerns were not well founded, because in this movie there’s plenty of drama among the adults even if the kids are fine.
The film is about an unconventional family with two teenage kids who were raised from birth by a lesbian couple. The mothers, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), had these children through the use of sperm donation back in the early 90s and each gave birth to one of the children. The elder of these children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), has recently turned eighteen and is asked by her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) to use her new adult status in order to contact their biological father through the sperm donation firm. Deciding to indulge her brother’s curiosity, she contacts their “father” Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a single free spirited guy currently running an organic garden/restaurant. The two kids sort of hit it off with this guy and he decides to continue his relationship with the family as sort of a cool uncle who visits with them from time to time. The kids are fine with this, but the sudden interloping of this guy sort of freaks out their mothers, who aren’t sure what to think about this development.
When I first saw the trailer for this I felt like it could be a sort of 21st Century version of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, not in that the plots are necessarily all that similar but because it could be a vehicle to explore a social issue through an accessible comedy about family dynamics. I suppose there’s a little bit of that here, but not really. This is not a political movie and it isn’t really about gay marriage so much as it’s about this one family and an odd little predicament it finds itself in. Certainly the movie is trying to present a portrait of a healthy GLBT family, but it’s never aggressive about making this point, the family is simply presented at face values. Occasionally the unique challenges of this family shine through, but the basic story points could have just as easily occurred if this was about a heterosexual couple that needed sperm donation because of mere infertility. A lesser movie would have added some sort of homophobic bad guy in the third act to challenge the family, but there’s nothing like that here, the movie avoids sermonizing at all costs and never seems like an aggressive attempt to achieve political ends.
In fact, there’s really no bad guy here, one of the movies great accomplishments is that it’s able to make a film with real drama while still making pretty much every character genuinely likable. Nic and Jules are a very believable couple with distinct characteristics, Nic is stable and career minded while Jules is basically a housewife with various plans for business ventures that may or may not be harebrained, but they also make sense as an opposites-attract couple and the actresses have legitimate chemistry. Both are also very believable as mothers who clearly love their children but in subtle ways while also being somewhat awkward when trying to sit down and talk with them about teenage issues.
It would have been easy to make the sperm donor character into some kind of vaguely homophobic character that needs to “come to terms” with the family he’s come into contact with, but they don’t go that route at all, Paul is just as likable as the mothers. Paul is basically an aging 90s hippie, the kind of guy who was probably really into grunge music at one point and who decided to keep chilling rather than sell out and become a yuppie. The movie never judges him for his lifestyle, and he’s totally fine with the whole lesbian mothers thing and the kids rightly see him as a pretty nice guy. Of course he has his problems too, he’s basically using the family as his own surrogate family and the mothers are right to question his intentions, but he’s not the stereotype he easily could have been and Mark Ruffalo brings a lot to the role. In fact, after seeing this I’m finally going to get on the Ruffalo bandwagon, I feel like I’ve underappreciated him for a while (mainly because he isn’t a show off) but he’s really great here.
The titular kids in the movie are certainly nicely believable, but they aren’t quite as developed as the adults in the film. This is particularly true of the fifteen year old Laser, who’s well written and acted in pretty much every scene but who seems a bit underdeveloped compared to all of the other characters. The family’s daughter, Joni, fares a bit better and is brought to life very effectively by the rising star Mia Wasikowska. The character is a model child and over-achiever but also sort of naïve and sheltered. I would have liked a few more glimmers of flaw in her character, as far as adolescent characters go she does still seem a little too perfect, but that’s not a huge complaint.
It should also be noted that this is a dramedy with an emphasis on the “dra.” There are some good chuckle inducing scenes throughout the movie, but for the most part it really isn’t funny. That is going to make it a slightly harder sell with mainstream audiences, but I’m not too worried about that. This is a warm and likable movie that will probably be this year’s indie hit, and it’s also a whole lot better than the “indie hits” we’ve had to deal with in recent years. This is far better and much less calculated than the likes of 500 Days of Summer or Little Miss Sunshine and it lacks any of the hip pandering involved in the likes of 500 Days of Summer or even Juno, if anything this almost reminds me of Sideways. It maybe isn’t quite up to the standards of that Alexander Payne triumph but it’s up there. I might not choose this over something as ambitious as Inception or something along those lines, but for what it is The Kids Are All Right is extremely satisfying and I’d venture to recommend it to almost any audience.
**** out of Four