Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a married lesbian couple bringing up their teenage kids, 18 year old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) (named after Joni Mitchell) and 15 year old Laser (Josh Hutcherson), in a trendy LA neighbourhood. Unconventional though the family may be on the face of it, they’re going through all the usual stuff.
The ‘Momses’, as the kids refer to them, have evidently dosed themselves up on pop psychology and self-development hoo-hah and are dutifully applying modern parenting strategies – the kids are rolling their eyes. As well they might. This is an area crying out for satirical treatment, and in director/writer Lisa Cholodenko and co-scribe Stuart Blumberg the best of practitioners are in da house! Dippy self-development lingo and New Age tripe provide the material for many a wry chuckle as the Momses attempt to plot their kids’ futures and manipulate them away from perceived present dangers.
Compacting their parenting dramas, the Momses are dealing with ‘couples issues’. There’s a power imbalance in the relationship: Nic’s a gynaecologist and the breadwinner, and Jules is still trying to work out what she wants to do when she grows up. Her latest venture is landscape design, which Nic doesn’t take seriously. Then there is the matter of their sexual relationship, which is on the wane. Even watching gay male porn just doesn’t seem to do it for them any more.
Prompted by Laser, Joni makes contact with their sperm-donor father Paul (Mark Ruffalo), and the fun really begins.
Paul is a cool dude extraordinaire. Approaching 50, he is a motorbike ridin’ locovore who owns a restaurant specialising in fine Californian wines and organic food that he grows himself. He has a spunky young lover, darkly exotic, with a cool retro afro, who works at his restaurant. It’s a strictly casual affair, naturally. Peter Pan can’t fly all trussed down with adult commitments!
Joni is taken with her new-found dad, but younger bro Laser is less impressed, observing astutely that he is ‘a bit into himself.’ Dismissing Laser’s criticism, Joni decides she wants to see more of her father – much to the Momses’ alarm. They are naturally wary of Paul; although his only contribution to the family has been thus far genetic, they realise that he suddenly has the power to profoundly change the dynamics within the household. Turns out the Momses’ trepidation is well-founded. And how!
Like Paul, this movie could have been too hip for its own good: Californian boomer lesbians spouting New Age claptrap, indigenous-plant-orientated landscape gardening, heirloom tomatoes, fine New World wines… Rest assured, it’s not. There’s no empty posturing going on here.
This is contemporary family life held up to a mirror of gentle but uncompromising satire. The dialogue sparkles with wit and intelligence and the actors take full advantage of the brilliant and psychologically finely-tuned screenplay. Made for a paltry $4 million, in this era of empty blockbuster CGI extravaganzas The Kids Are All Right is a timely reminder of the importance of getting the dramatic fundamentals right.
Funny, moving, wise, gripping from beginning to end, with characters that all develop along arc-like trajectories as a natural consequence of who they are and how they react to their situations rather than in deference to formulaic dictates…well, what more do ya want?
As a modern-day comedy of manners this is about as good as it gets. The most enjoyable movie I’ve seen all year.
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