Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a middle-class and middle-aged couple living a happy domestic life with their teenage children. Their domesticity and relationship is put to the test when Paul (Mark Ruffalo) enters the picture. Paul is the (until now) anonymous donor whose sperm allowed Nic and Jules to have their children and those children now want to get to know their biological father. As things start to get bumpy director and co-writer Lisa Cholodenko keeps a handle on all the characters, relationships and dynamics beautifully so that she is able to seamlessly move the film from moments of humour, to tense awkwardness to heartfelt sincerity and then back again.
The first scene where we see Nic and Jules kiss, the camera lingers ever so slightly on the moment to establish that these two central characters are both women who are in a loving, long-term relationship. Beyond that moment the fact that this film is about a family with two women as the parents is treated as a given. The film has acknowledged that we rarely see same-sex couples played by major Hollywood stars and then it moves on. This is just one of the many elements that makes The Kids Are All Right such a pleasingly enlightened and non-judgemental film.
The Kids Are All Right is also a very effective domestic comedy/drama and a lot of that is due to the performances. Bening, Moore and Ruffalo are magnificent, and Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson are also wonderful as Joni and Laser, the two teenage children. As the film’s title suggests (laughing in the face of classic “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” contrived hysteria), the children are doing fine, especially compared to their three parents who are having a harder time dealing with the situation than they are. The interaction between these five characters is so natural and Cholodenko has done a great job capturing the dynamics of uncomfortable situations, conversations with double meanings and moments where people let down their barriers to truly connect with each other.
The Kids Are All Right is a film about marriage, family and parenthood and it explores these themes with far more integrity, insight and humour than many other films; not despite its depiction of a non nuclear family but possibly because of it. Losing the traditional and conservative paradigm of what constitutes a family, without the slightest degree of sensationalism, has allowed Cholodenko to break through the melodrama, schmaltz and shallow insincerity that often plagues family drama films. Instead we get to enjoy the company of, and see some of ourselves in, this ensemble of flawed and immensely likeable characters.