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11.2.11

For Your Consideration: 'The Kids Are All Right'

The Kids Are All Right is a fairly standard domestic drama. Two parents are facing the challenges of having grown apart -- from each other and from their two kids, who are nearing adulthood. Their daughter Joni, named for Joni Mitchell and played with willowy stillness by a relative unknown, Australian-born Mia Wasikowska, will go to college at the end of the summer: ever the dutiful daughter, she is poised finally to break free of her parents. The son, given the equally 60s name of Laser and played with slightly tense form by Josh Hutcherson, is perhaps too influenced by an anchor-less and drug-addled friend named Clay (the amusingly spastic Eddie Hassell). The script, credited to Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, is as meandering and organic as the ex-hippies who populate it, playing out more at the level of an after-school special about growing up -- apart from some explicit sex scenes -- than a major feature.

The twist is that the parents in this nuclear family are both women, and they each conceived one of the kids with sperm donated by the same man. The virtue of the film is that it reveals this facet of the story as if there is nothing remarkable about it: no cheesy voice-over announcing that this is a lesbian family. Wearing the pants is Nic, an OB-GYN, played with admirable force and honesty by Annette Bening: her short, ruffled hair and black glasses clearly mark her as the stand-in for director and co-screenwriter, Lisa Cholodenko. Nic's partner, Jules, played with earthy plainness by Julianne Moore, is less centered, just now embarking on yet another career path, landscape design. Now, driven by an unspoken longing for that absent father, the kids seek out the anonymous sperm donor, who turns out to be Paul, an extremely laid-back owner of an organic farm and restaurant, played with vacuous ease by Mark Ruffalo. Paul enters this already shifting landscape and upsets what little order remained, providing a point of view that is cool, detached, male, but most of all not mired in years of family history. He has all the authority and appeal of a biological father, able with only a few words and shrugs of the shoulders to nudge the kids toward independence from their moms and their friends, having put in none of the hard work.


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Cholodenko and her real-life partner have a son who was conceived with the help of an anonymous sperm donor, and she has brought a lesbian point of view to the screen in her earlier work, like High Art (noteworthy, among other things, for the resurrection of Ally Sheedy), although she had not been actively making films for part of the last decade. Her work here shows that Heather really is like anyone else, even if she does have two mommies, and puts the couple's life into extraordinary detail -- the film may provide way too much information about what turns some lesbians on, for example. Does that twist really make this little film worthy of the Academy Award nominations it has received, for Best Film (a long shot), Best Actress for Bening (solid, entertaining, but ultimately undistinguished work), or Best Original Screenplay (probably unmerited for fairly pedestrian dialogue)? No. On the other hand, I could get behind a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Mia Wasikowska, which she did not get. As Bening's daughter she is beautiful, a little awkward emotionally, but without one note of artifice. The question of the kids' sexual orientation obviously agonizes these mothers of adolescents, as they bend over backwards to be accepting and yet manage simultaneously to be smothering. Their suspicion falls mostly on Laser, but it is Joni who seems the most lost in this regard, even though she seems so put together on the surface. The close-up of her quivering face as her family drops her off at college is the most memorable image of the film.

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