Great Films By Women – The Kids Are All Right

A version of this post originally appeared on as a review of the film during its theatrical run.

My appreciation for The Kids Are All Right (2010) only increases the more I consider it. I didn’t even realize how highly I thought of the film until I found myself responding to criticisms of it with intense defensiveness. An indie family comedy that relies on relationships and characters rather than quirk to charm its audience, it’s a piece of very strong writing that is skillfully brought to life by a number of talented people, both behind and in front of the camera.

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a long-time committed couple. They are raising two children, each biologically attached to one parent and also to the same sperm donor. Daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) is about to leave for college, and son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is several years younger. The film looks in at this picture of a long marriage—with kids as well-adjusted as anyone can reasonably hope for, and adults trying to figure out what the next half of their lives will look like—as it reaches one of those inevitable rocky patches.

The circumstances of this particular rocky patch happen to be a bit theatrical. In a move that would veer us into very different territory in the hands of lesser actors or someone less subtle than director Lisa Cholodenko (who co-wrote the script with Stuart Blumberg), the kids decide to seek out and meet their sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo)—without telling their moms. From here, the characters act in ways that are true to the small world that’s been set up. We’re treated to a series of awkward events that are situational comedy in the most genuine sense.

As the various members of the family bond with Paul in their own, vastly disparate ways, they of course use this new catalyst to examine their relationships with each other. Poor choices are made, allegiances are formed and broken, issues bubble to the surface, as issues will. Some of the plot turns are predictable, but this is mostly because these characters are people like so many people we have known, and like ourselves. Luckily, the writing is skillful in a way I hope I can emulate myself: scenes simply end before getting to the cliché part, and let the audience members’ own experiences and common sense fill in the blanks.

Besides the enviable script, the deft direction must also be noted. One could take this script, tweak a scene here and there, hire different actors, and tell the same story either entirely as a melodrama or as a slapstick comedy. Either choice could potentially result in a successful film. What we get here, though, is something where we get to feel genuinely for the characters in a way that doesn’t work with a more extreme tone. They exude toward each other the same feeling we all do for so many of our loved ones: “I love you, but you’re annoying as hell sometimes.” I believe too many movies and television shows leave us wondering why their inhabitants would ever actively choose to spend time with each other. This is never a problem here; despite their problems, we just get it.

It must be said that it is still significant to see a fairly mainstream film showcase a gay couple without ‘making a big deal of it.’ That is certainly nice to watch. It is also significant to see a film that is at its core a comedy feature three great, nuanced roles for females. With Oscar odds-making season coming up, Moore and Bening are deservedly showing up on a number of shortlists. I also hope to see recognition for the screenplay, at least.

The Kids Are All Right will be released on DVD on November 16. Add it to that Netflix queue now!


3 Responses to “Great Films By Women – The Kids Are All Right”

  1. 1 Rebecca October 21, 2010 at 10:46 am

    Just saved it to the queue. Stoked to see it!

  2. 2 Jared January 17, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    I loved this movie. Another absolutely great recommend on your “Women” list.

    I think you best explain why with: “scenes simply end before getting to the cliché part, and let the audience members’ own experiences and common sense fill in the blanks.”

    I was struck with how pro-Paul I was while watching and immediately after, and it took me a while to untangle it and realize what a flawed character he was. My own experiences, and reflecting on my own sometimes self-satisfied view of the world helped a great deal. Joni and Nic’s last scene with him helped too of course. On reflection, Paul’s ignorant interaction with his beautiful black co-worker/lover sealed the deal.

    The depth of each main character, the moms, the kids and Paul, make this movie for me–it’s like I’ve known these characters for much more than two hours, they seem to me book-length or real-life characters. The writing and directing no doubt “make” that depth in ways I don’t fully appreciate. I’d like to see another Lisa C. movie to better understand that. Another thing that struck me is the treatment of the minor characters–Paul’s co-worker, Jules’ hire, Laser’s buddy, Joni’s two friends–each so real and imaginable that their limited screentime and lines don’t impact their depth. Here, again, my own experiences with similar character types seamlessly fill the gaps.

    This movie left me feeling good about relationships and our ability to work through problems big and small with simple, honest communication. That sort of real-life transfer is, in my view, what makes movies so great. And this one is at the top of my list for 2010.

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