The Kids Are Definitely All Right

Lisa Cholodenko’s "The Kids Are All Right" does what few comedies have dared to do in quite some time--it examines the slowly fraying edges that inevitably result when people make long commitments to one another, and it does it with both ferocity and tenderness. Although the central differences that the characters Nic and Jules (the protagonist mothers--played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) have with heteronormative Hollywood productions inevitably draws the attention of cultural critics, the heart of this movie resides in familial relationships that the children (18 year-old Joni and 15 year-old Laser--played by Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson, respectively) have with their two moms and the "interloper" sperm-donating father Paul (played by Mark Ruffalo). Of course, the norms that the characters adhere to are as heteronormative and patriarchal as the values that the lesbian mothers battle; still, these norms are at once more sublely-played and powerful than the heterosexual economy that the seducing Paul re-introduces into Nic's and Jules' love equation. This movie foregrounds a highly-emphasized sexual motif, with several sexual encounters between characters--and even a rather stylized gay porno-- and rather graphically emphasizes the sexual implications of life choices. Underneath the encounters and cuckolding, however, lies more profound feelings of abandonment, insecurity, longing, and wishing.

Laser's desire for a fatherly connection awakens after his awkwardly-bullying friend/acquaintance Clay gets into a very rough wrestling match with his own dad. Laser, a rather quiet teenager, convinces his sister Joni to look up and contact their biological father Paul, and the once-clear family lines begin to cross. The viewers initially get to see Nic and Jules as a rather normal couple, with separate identities and different power situations. Nic, an OB-GYN is played somewhat unflatteringly, though humanely. Nic's obviously the breadwinner, and brooks little discussion on matters of protocol or propriety. Jules provides the bulk of the nurturing for the family, and we meet her as she is trying to launch a landscaping business. It is during the scenes where Nic and Jules discuss her fledgling business, and during dinner interactions that we see that Jules is somewhat inarticulate and at a disadvantage to Nic's well-polished, disciplined, yet often cold demeanor. Clearly, these two people love each other, but 18+ years with two children have required compromises, and it looks like Jules' flakiness has provided much of the cushion.

The entrance of a very sexual, and casually entitled Paul (he enters not by design, as it was the children who asked for his presence) happens at Jules' emotional ebb. His affirming and flirtatious support of Jules' career through a backyard commission quickly turns physical, as Paul does not miss a chance to compliment Jules' work, philosophy, and looks. Moreover, he does not turn her advances back, as his encounters with his biologically-connected kids awaken feelings of yearning for rootedness and even a family of his own. The physical relationship that ensues seems sadly funny, as both of these characters don't know where the "off" switch resides. Jules' knows that she loves her family, but she cannot stand up for her own needs, and Paul doesn't know how to appreciate what he already has. Paul's need to stay open for the advance puts everyone into an awkward position, as families do not have the same kind of resilience as the young women he has bedded. Or do they? As this family goes churns through the crisis, you find out that Jules' has much more strength and sticktuitiveness than first portrayed. She provides the climactic and heart-wrenching living-room talk that reveals just how aware she is that she has betrayed, and has been betrayed by, the woman she loves. The "marathon" she describes is one that Nic must also admit to--Nic's uncomfortableness with her physiciality, her easy comfort with overdrinking, overstating opinions, and her overdependence on her economic and professional superiority all come crashing down. She knows that she's been shutting out Jules, and only the quiet affirmation of Jules' worth can help her meet the inarticulate and wounded heart of her partner on more equal ground. This reversal of Jules' and Nic's articulateness marks the turn in admitting that they don't know how things will turn out, but that they are committed to each other and their children regardless.

While the acting is generally very good, Julianne Moore's acting comes across as genuinely rich. Ms. Moore shows an attention to character that I have not seen in any of her roles (she generally depends upon the depth of her expressive eyes--something I might attribute to her choice of roles in thrillers and dramas). Annette Bening is, as usual, excellent. She presents a bit more of a hard edge with her silent cruelties, but underlines her role with a genuine warmth. Unlike her role in American Beauty, she is a sympathetic character (as are all of the characters--including Mark Ruffalo's clueless lothario).

What is genuinely a delight, though emerges from the way that Laser eventually enunciates the heart of the family. His rejection of Clay (during his "friend's" attempt to urinate on a stray dog) and his embracing of his mothers, with all of their flaws, provide a bit of honesty to the perfectionism of Nic and Joni and the self-doubt of Jules. Probably not "Best Picture" material, but a pretty frank and, ultimately hopeful, look at the contrast between family dreams and family realities.


Sport said...

Laser's epiphany with and rejection of Clay represents a rejection of patriarchal values of domination as well as the turning point in the film and the moment viewers recognize the protagonist.

Doc Mara said...

Agreed. I would also add the way that the family works through the betrayals also constitutes a rejection of patriarchal values. Paul is shut out of the picture--not violently, but shut out nevertheless. It's a gentle reminder that the bonds of love can be the bonds that define us more than biology.