Once you get past the setup -- two lesbians raising a pair of teenagers who decide to seek out their sperm-donor dad -- "The Kids Are All Right" is most shocking for how not shocking it is. It is at its heart nothing more than a smart, funny drama about a very normal family.
"The Kids Are All Right" tells the story of two siblings, Joni and Laser, being raised by lesbian parents, Nic and Jules. One day the kids decide to find the man who supplied the sperm that made them possible. Your instinct will be to gird yourself for a lengthy polemic in favor of gay marriage. Nope.
All four members of the family fall into traditional roles. Annette Bening's Nic is your basic every-Dad, with her close cropped hair and bread-winning career as a doctor. Julianne Moore is the sexy, Earthy-crunchy, stay-at-home mom desperate to find some purpose as she faces the prospect of of an empty nest. Mia Wasikowksa is Joni, the mousy, insecure, overachieving brainiac. And Josh Hutcherson is Laser, the affable, shiftless jock. This family is pure apple pie.
Watching his best friend wrestle (literally) with his own father inspires Laser to convince Joni they should find the man who helped make them. When Joni finally gets Paul (Mark Ruffalo) on the phone, it takes him a minute to process the family's construct. "I love lesbians," he blurts when he finally figures it out.
The acting is as good as you would expect from a film that features three of Hollywood's best. Bening is great as the aggrieved, wine-swilling head of household who feels her family slipping away. Ruffalo makes the perfect shaggy dog, free of responsibility, unburdened by conscience and just happy to be along for the ride. At the center of the action is Moore, whose Jules is grabbing at anything that passes her by in the hopes of finding some ballast -- no character goes through more emotionally, and Moore keeps it believable at every turn.
Wasikowska and Hutcherson are both excellent as well. "I wish I was that good coming out of the gate," said Ruffalo when asked about his young co-stars. Wasikowska has proven herself adept at doin gthe adolescent in turmoil before, she's on comfortable footing here. And Hutcherson proves her equal in every scene. You watch him and think, "Yeah, that's probably how a 15-year-old with two moms acts."
"Kids" marks the first time director Lisa Cholodenko has collaborated on a script, co-writing the film with Stuart Blumberg, who has previously written two very nearly good films, "Keeping the Faith" and "The Girl Next Door." The serious, lesbian indie dramatist and the hetero Jewish comic make for an unlikely pairing, but it works.
The dramatic arc and tension that Cholodenko maintains keeps Blumberg's sense of humor focused on the story at hand. The structure of story is very disciplined, never going off the rails, chasing the cheap joke or ratcheting up the melodrama.
Chodolenko does a nice job of pushing us closer and closer to the family's first meal together before pulling back to let us and them breathe for a moment, only to dive back in. She also does a nice job of creating space between Nic and Jules as finding their way through some heavy marital strife and she makes pitch-perfect use of a slow-motion -- usually the kiss of death in an adult drama -- close-up on Bening at a pivotal moment.
Where Blumberg helped Cholodenko was, by her own admission, knowing how far you could take the humor. There's a great bit about gay male porn in the film that comes directly from Cholodenko's life. When Blumberg heard the story he insisted it be written into the film, an idea Cholodenko says she originally balked at, fearing it was too "out."
You've probably heard the old joke "I'm all for gay marriage -- gay people should be just as miserable as the rest of us," and this film is proof of just how true that maxim is. What's unfortunate is that as great as it is, "The Kids Are All Right" will likely end up preaching to the choir.
"The Kids Are All Right" opens nationally July 9