FILM REVIEW: The Kids Are All Right (2010)

The Kids Are All Right (USA, 2010)
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko
Starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska

The American film industry has noticeably changed since Brokeback Mountain was snubbed at the Oscars. The critical acclaim and awards lavished upon Milk and A Single Man shows that American cinema is now more willing than ever to talk about different forms of sexuality. The latest such film is The Kids Are All Right, a light-hearted, well-balanced comedy drama which looks set to scoop several nominations at next year's awards.It would be easy to dismiss The Kids Are All Right as either a cheap gimmick for Hollywood to prove its 'right-on' credentials, or the latest quirky offering from Sundance which has no life outside a festival audience. But the merest glance at the cast and crew lists blows both preconceptions out of the water. Lisa Cholodenko is well-placed to direct: not only is the film semi-autobiographical, but she previously explored lesbian relationships in her feature-length debut High Art. Julianne Moore has played her fair share of Sapphic characters, sometimes seriously (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee), sometimes less so (Chloe).

It's clear from the outset that The Kids Are All Right is not just a 'lesbian couple movie', any more than Brokeback Mountain was just a 'gay cowboy movie'. The film never treats the sexual preference of its central couple as a gimmick, something to set it apart from other dramas and generate Oscar buzz (that happened of its own accord). Neither is it a film which relies overly on quirkiness to set its characters apart, in the manner of Little Miss Sunshine. The entire story is grounded in the assumption that this family is not only functional but completely normal.Considering its Sundance background and its awards hype, one could naturally assume The Kids Are All Right is a political film. The relationship between Nic and Jules is on one level a demonstration of how gay or lesbian couples are just as capable as their heterosexual counterparts at raising a family, and that by extension they should be accorded the same rights. But in fact the main thrust of the film is not political but social, being an examination of the modern family unit regardless of the gender make-up of the parents, or indeed the children (there is a long discussion as to whether Laser is gay).

Making a film with a lesbian couple which focuses on the family as a unit rather than as individual genders is a very smart move. Superficially, it means that we avoid any of the Hollywood stereotypes surrounding gay or lesbian characters; we don't have to put up with anyone mincing or living entirely in dungarees. But more than that, it allows the film to explore deep social issues such as gender, power and fatherhood in a uniquely subtle way. Nic and Jules behave like any other bickering couple, always picking up on each other's faults, arguing and swiftly apologising. The distance which comes between them as a result of Jules' misadventure with Paul is the kind of distance that would result from any extra-marital affair. Because of this familiarity, audiences can identify with their predicament, whilst absorbing the message that gays and lesbians should not be treated as a special case, legally or psychologically.The Kids Are All Right raises a number of fascinating questions surrounding fatherhood, and in particular the issue of fatherhood by proxy. The film taps into the whole debate about where responsibility lies, and whether the concept of fatherhood lies mainly in nature or in nurture. Mark Ruffalo's character is the sperm donor which produced both Nic and Jules' kids, and so he is technically their father. But because he is their father by proxy (i.e. by sperm donation rather than actual intercourse), it is not clear whether he is responsible for them or not. Nic and Jules certainly don't think so, referring to Paul as their "sperm donor" rather than 'husband' or 'partner'. Paul may be well-meaning, but in the end it comes down to emotional rather than biological ties; it is the children as much as anyone else who say they don't need him, or even want him.

A lot of The Kids Are All Right is about everyone involved growing up. Alongside Joni's imminent departure for college, the whole family undergoes a process of maturity that comes as a result of the struggle with Paul. Although it never drifts into caricature, the depiction of the family at the start of the film is fairly idyllic; they live comfortably in a peaceful neighbourhood with two cars, and the children are very well-behaved. Up until Paul's arrival, they have pretty much had it easy, like a child being kept at home. Paul's presence sees this child being thrust into the wider world where everything is more complicated and it is a lot easier to get hurt.This brings us to the central plot twist involving Jules sleeping with Paul. The affair comes about because Jules is doing some landscape gardening on Paul's plot, while her desire to be creative is dismissed by Nic. Feeling ignored by her partner, Jules inadvertently kisses Paul, and the two end up sleeping together on several occasions. Jules becomes so paranoid about their relationship that she fires her Mexican assistant, wrongfully assuming that he is on to them.You can understand why this particular twist was chosen, since it's a logical way of putting distance between Nic and Jules: Jules feels unappreciated by Nic, while Paul thinks she is really talented, and one thing leads to another. And this decision also harks back to the legal grey area surrounding fatherhood by proxy: in the eyes of the law, Jules is having an affair, but on biological terms she is sleeping with the father of her child. But it's still a little problematic because of how easily Jules ends up kissing Paul. Having built up her relationship with Nic, it seems a little contrived that she would be so quick to kiss him, let alone pull down his trousers and admire what she sees.

There is a surprising amount of sex in The Kids Are All Right, from Joni's smutty school-friend to the gay porn watched by Nic and Jules, not to mention the actual sex scenes with Paul and either Jules or Tanya. On the one hand, the film should be praised for being so upfront about the sexuality of its characters and how social attitudes have changed. And beyond a number of topless glimmers, there isn't much in the way of full-on nudity. But the overtly sexual tone may be unnerving to some, particularly in the first 20 minutes.The final niggle with the film is what could be called its 'message moment', the point in awards contenders when a character stands up and delivers the central message of the film. Sure enough, there is an awkward moment when Julianne Moore stands up, turns off the TV and speaks for a couple of minutes, as the camera cuts back and forth between a close-up of her face and the rest of the family. She speaks about how hard it is to keep a family together, and how much she loves both Nic and the kids no matter what happens. It's well-meaning but contrived, and all the little digressions about reading Russian novels don't sit easily.Most of the problems with The Kids Are All Right are decisions which the filmmaker would steadfastly defend, and in the end they are not enough to derail or compromise the film. Even when it treads dangerously close to the overtly smug territory of Ordinary People or The Squid and the Whale, it gets away with it because the characters are likeable, the story is interesting and most of all we care about the family. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are on very good form, and it would come as no surprise if one or both of them finally won the Oscar they deserve. After all, The Kids Are All Right is a damn good film, as warm and inviting as the family it depicts.

Rating: 3.5/5
Verdict: Better than all right


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