Last night, here in San Diego, I was invited to a screening of The Kids Are All Right. I know there’s been a lot of buzz surrounding the movie and a whole lot PR to go along with it, but, for some reason, I’d been quietly avoiding seeing it. Maybe it was the trailer that, to my mind, made the plot — a lesbian couple, their sperm donor, and the kids who just gotta meet him — a little too sitcom-y. Or the idea of using a gay couple to freshen up an overly-familiar premise that seemed both too precious, politically convenient, and probably insulting. But, after speaking briefly with an ex-boyfriend about Kids, I decided, “Eh, I’ll go.”
Please trust me when I say that I could not have been more wrong about this movie. This brilliant film offers a funny, complex, and nearly overwhelmingly realistic look not just at one gay family, but all families and the relationships that build and bind them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like The Kids Are All Right. Truly, I don’t know of another movie where I’ve had to employ, while laughing, the horror movie watch-through-the-fingers technique just to watch a family quietly eat dinner.
Annette Bening is Nic, the uptight ob-gyn married to Julianne Moore’s Jules, the somewhat scattered stay-at-home mom who has decided to launch yet another business. Together, Nic and Jules have raised their two children, 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and her 15-year-old brother, Laser (Josh Hutcherson), in a traditional and loving family. During Joni’s last summer at home before leaving for college, the siblings decide to contact their sperm donor/biological father Paul, played by Mark Ruffalo. And this is where the sitcom flavor of the movie begins and ends.
Within minutes, the acutely honest dialogue and restrained but blazing performances make it blindingly clear that this movie plans to delicately and brutally explore the nearly intangible realities that comprise our daily lives — how external personal conflicts are so often a reflection of what is going on internally. “That’s putting the cart before the horse,” Nic says in one scene. Which, logically consistent or not, is how relationships necessarily operate.
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko (High Art) who co-wrote the melodic screenplay with Stuart Bloomberg, the movie teases apart the lines and knots that zigzag across all families and, as often as not, end up tripping everyone. Yes, a same-sex marriage is at the heart of this family, but, under Cholodenko’s direction, the genders of the people in the relationships melt away, and we are allowed to see the crackled humanity of the characters as they struggle to hold themselves and their family together — not as a political stance, not as a brave statement, but because family is something they not only need, but want.
Of course, accompanying the deep joys of a family built lovingly over the years are the unsettling frustrations of the inevitable loss of oneself inside of that structure. Jules says, “Marriage is hard. Two people, year after year. Sometimes you stop seeing the other person.” And when you stop being seen, you quickly start being miserable. What better time, then, to begin looking, hard, at yourself? The Who’s song “The Kids Are Alright” inspired the movie’s title and hints at the tug-of-war between self and family, “Bells chime, I know I gotta get away/ And I know if I don’t, I’ll go out of my mind.”
Watching The Kids Are All Right, I feel like pieces and parts of nearly all of my family and friends were placed into a box, shaken up, and then placed onscreen in new configurations. This onscreen family is as different from my family as it could be, but I don’t know that I have ever seen so many components of my life reassembled in such a recognizable way. And I’m certain that a movie has never given me as much insight into my own family as this one did. Although entirely different from Brokeback Mountain, The Kids Are All Right left me with that same feeling that I had seen something both gay and great.
Towleroad interviews the stars of The Kids Are All Right