In her work as both writer and director, Cholodenko appears to have exactly one dramatic scenario up her sleeve—the pan-sexual fallout that ensues when a seemingly happy couple's relationship is exposed to a charismatic ... well, interloper. In 1998's High Art, it was innocent Radha Mitchell and her live-in boyfriend falling under the thrall of lesbian photographer Ally Sheedy; in 2002's Laurel Canyon, it was Kate Beckinsale and her fiance Christian Bale moving in with his bohemian mom, Frances McDormand. The Kids Are All Right is a fairly satisfying family comedy-drama that could have provided a break from that theme—and it's only because Cholodenko seems so attached to it that the film misses a chance to be something special.
Cholodenko certainly does a fine job of establishing the domestic normalcy of the two-mommies Southern California household headed by Nic, a Type-A OB/GYN, and Jules, a less grounded sort working on her latest career change. They nag recent high-school graduate Joni (Alice in Wonderland's Mia Wasikowska) about sending thank-you notes, they worry about 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) spending too much time with a friend they don't like and they bicker with each other like any 20-years-together couple. So, it's a disruption to the routine when Laser decides he wants to meet the guy who provided half his genes, which the now-18-year-old Joni can help facilitate. And Paul—a locavore restaurateur with a hippie-dippie streak—is just the kind of guy who can mix things up a little.
Cholodenko kicks things off with a more humorous touch than usual, perhaps evidence of the co-scripting contributions from Stuart Blumberg (The Girl Next Door)Ñand those gags are hit and miss. For every sly, subtle line of dialogue, there's an improbably farcical moment like Nic and Jules' night of sex being interrupted by a blast of high volume from the gay porn movie they're watching, or that tired standby, the cut immediately from someone saying "We should never [fill-in-the-blank] again," to them doing [fill-in-the-blank].
What elevates the material, even when it makes those missteps, are the three terrific lead performances. Bening plays in some ways the most thankless part—the uptight matriarch—with enough twists and turns that she feels like a fresh creation; Moore takes what amounts to a standard mid-life-crisis character arc as she begins an affair with Paul, and gives it a sparkle of intelligence. Best of all is Ruffalo, who feels utterly natural and complex as an untethered guy who thinks he can find his place easily in this ready-made family. It's a nifty acting trick that he manages to find the fundamental immaturity in a man convincing himself that he's finally growing up.
It's pretty telling, however, that despite the fact that the movie is called The Kids Are All Right, we haven't spent much time talking about the kids. Cholodenko never spends enough time with Laser to get a grip on how much his desire for a male role model affects his need to meet Paul, nor with how he feels when he realizes he has virtually nothing in common with the guy. Joni is largely defined by her reluctance to be sexually intimate, but the film similarly fails to connect her few scenes with Paul to that issue. The Kids Are All Right screams for the focus of the story to be on whether a father figure is something Joni and Laser really need, or just think they need—and Cholodenko ultimately doesn't seem all that interested in them.
Or, perhaps more to the point, she's just more interested in Nic and Jules. The Kids Are All Right may be Cholodenko's attempt to show that the bumps and bruises of a gay marriage are just like those in a straight marriage, but that only means she's telling too familiar a story. It's hard to tell from The Kids Are All Right whether the kids are all right, since when it comes to Cholodenko's preferred narrative, they're interlopers, too.
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo