Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Love: The Kids Are All Right

Every summer all the little indie-darling production company offshoots (Focus, Fox Searchlight, Paramount Vantage, etc.) use some sort of twee cartography to map out the placement of their saleable wares amongst the squalor of superheroes, sequels, and gimmick comedies.  It's a quiet scramble to pin down a sleeper hit.  You want the comfort of a dark, air conditioned box, they serve you a refreshing, often spiked lemonade.  Before the dramatics of award season, we are given their comedic prelude.  These are the money makers that arrive - through word of mouth and expertly timed advertisements - with a glowing nimbus of praise.  First they're in that little city art house theater, then they start appearing in the suburbs, suddenly (a month in to the run), they're everywhere.  The first one I can recall consciously was My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and we all know what a runaway smash that was.  Not every low-budget indie gets its own short-lived network sitcom to fail miserably at.  The most memorable, though, is probably the reign of Little Miss Sunshine.  Since we met the Hoover family in 2006, every summer has brought with it a family-oriented indie dramedy touted as "this year's" model.  Well, ladies & gents, meet this year's model.

The Kids Are All Right is drawing its fair share of attention, largely positive and rightfully so.  It's a successful comedy that blends legitimate laugh-out-loud moments of smart dialogue and clever positioning with genuine bits of emotion and a relatable plot.  Relatable. That's a word you'll hear a lot if you listen to the critical mouthpieces discuss Lisa Cholodenko's film.  See, the supposed key to this story, the thing that makes The Kids Are All Right the exception to movies of its type is that it centers around a family unit headed up by a married lesbian couple.  The 'relatable' bit is thrown in as  the sideways way of reassuring nervous average Americans that this is, in fact, not one of those "gay" movies, and while I think it's rather silly to assume that the sexual preferences of its primary characters indicate something totally foreign or largely "unrelatable" to an average audience, I will admit that there is something about the film's easy-going relatability that makes it one of its strongest suits.  As Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) struggle to raise two decent teenage kids, they are exactly your parents (or, if you are a parent, exactly you).  They bicker and ask too many questions and want to know what you've been up to and tell you that you should really eat your vegetables and are waiting in the kitchen to give you a lecture.  They suffer and question their relationship and want to figure things out and can't stand that their kids are growing up.  You know, just like any other parent.  Ultimately, while there are a couple scenes that lean too heavily on a wink-wink nudge-nudge sexual joke, The Kids Are All Right is just a film about family, about marriage, and about the unexpected strains that outsiders can place on otherwise happy households. 
Fresh off of Alice in Wonderland, up and comer Mia Wasikowska plays 18-year old Joni.  In her last summer before college, Joni takes up her younger brother Laser's (Josh Hutcherson) campaign to meet the anonymous sperm donor his Moms used to conceive him.  Through the agency, they contact the laid-back and willing Paul (Mark Ruffalo).  Paul's an earthy sort of guy, the type who farms and owns his own organic restaurant and beds neo-hippie chicks keen on his natural stench and the way he straddles that motorcycle.  Impressed with the cool, SoCal bachelor ways of Paul, Joni and Laser strike up a relationship based on hangouts, shooting hoops, and outdoor meals.  Partially annoyed with the unexpected arrival of Paul into their tight family, the Moms decide to embrace Paul (and check up on his status as decent human being) with open arms for the sake of the kids.  What follows is a rich portrait of parenthood interrupted, and of unexpected change built around the fickle fluidity of human temperaments and the inclusive, grey areas  ::SPOILER::  that are inherent in supposedly disparate sexual preferences.

The cast, as a whole, is terrific.  While the film would be a joy to watch in part because of its greenery and soundtrack alone, the performances give the story its heart and its teeth.  As the stricter, more tightly-wound Nic, Annette Bening is nearly unrecognizable.  She fluctuates between subtle moods and small joys almost in an instant, indulging in open displays of warmth just before clamming up completely to sit quietly at a dining room table where she has become a pained, miserable outsider.  Yet, where Bening may be stellar, Moore steals nearly every scene she's in.  With a posture so casual and a demeanor so thoroughly guileless, Moore has never seemed more real, more accessible to the viewer.  There were points at which her 30 Rock recurring character, Nancy Donovan, seemed to shine through.  Perhaps Jules is Nancy's west coast, hippie-dippy equivalent or estranged sister, who knows.  All that can be said is that that sort of artfully comedic character works for Moore.  It's a performance that comes across as daring perhaps because it's so simplistically honest and genuinely confused, and the chemistry with which she offsets both Bening and Ruffalo feels perfect and palpable.  Wasikowska, too, is a stand-out who slips so thoroughly into the skin of gentle, teenage Joni that it will be hard to separate perception of Wasikowska the actress from the hopeful, vulnerable girl seen here.

To put it bluntly: I really enjoyed The Kids Are All Right.  It felt like a healthy, well-balanced brunch with good natured relatives.  There's a heaping dose of humor between the bitter bits of regret and melancholy, and while the characters made mistakes, it was easy to see past their flaws and forgive them; to believe that ultimately, the kids and the grown-ups would indeed be alright.  In a summer film that manages both smart and savvy, that manages to raise questions about human nature even as it wraps us in a hug and reassures us, that makes us want to eat fresh salads on the porch instead of feeding us dress-up montages,  that's something to be said.   

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