“The Kids Are All Right” is a new kind of family film, smarter than most and funnier than many. The family in it is headed by two long-term lesbian partners, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), and includes their two children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), who are each the partial product of a single anonymous sperm donor. The kids (who call their parents “the moms”) are now in their teens, and curious about their biological father. When they track him down, he turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a footloose, 40-something restaurant owner who rides a motorcycle and still wears a black-leather jacket. Can any good come of this?
More than you’d think. The story could have been a setup for scoring political points, but director Lisa Cholodenko is beyond that. Nic and Jules’ family is like any other: It has its ups and downs and internecine irritations. Nic is a doctor with a too-hearty taste for high-end wine. Jules has never found her place in the working world: She now runs a one-woman landscaping operation, but remains miffed that Nic always wanted her to be a stay-at-home mom. Joni, who’ll be heading to college in the fall, is wondering whether to act on her attraction to a boy in her high school. Laser is a science wiz and athlete who’s suddenly not too sure about this let’s-find-our-dad thing.
Paul, who’s unmarried, is intrigued by the new situation he finds himself in. Now that he thinks about it, he’d sort of like to have a home and a family. “I don’t wanna be that 50-year-old guy that’s just hangin’ out,” he says. He hires Jules to do some landscaping for him. He’s a sweet guy, and when she looks at his face she sees her kids’ features looking back at her. Paul suddenly kisses her over one of his strawberry-rhubarb pies. Jules is affronted. (“You think I’m some sort of sad-sack middle-aged lesbian?”) Before long, though, she feels her resistance beginning to crumble.
Indie films rarely have casts as strong as this one. Bening and Moore play their ages in performances unhedged by vanity. Wasikowska, who didn’t register strongly in “Alice in Wonderland,” is revealed as a supple actress here, playing a girl compelled to deal with a domestic conflict that’s beyond her experience. Hutcherson nicely underplays Laser’s teenage confusion, and Ruffalo — well, Ruffalo confirms yet again that he’s one of our most emotionally articulate actors. His Paul is so appealing, we’re not sure which side to root for. Which makes the movie’s wonderful conclusion all the more moving.
Check out everything we’ve got on “The Kids Are All Right.”
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