I’d had a shitty day because my car got towed and was in no mood for a Sundance movie about politically correct lesbian moms who listen to too much Joni Mitchell, yet director Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right sent me sailing out of the theater with a giant, goofy grin. It’s a happy, horny movie that loves its characters not in spite of, but because of their messy human imperfections.
Annette Bening and Julianne Moore star as Nic and Jules, two married, touchy-feely helicopter moms who dote on their kids with scary textbook buzzwords and trendy parenting notions from progressive magazines. But they’re still just as fucked-up and flummoxed as the rest of us.
Bening is a doctor and the control freak of the group, lording over the family with a passive-aggressive rule. It’s to Bening’s credit that the iron fist believably comes off as coming from somewhere deeply tender and loving that she has a hard time showing. Moore is the loosey-goosey free spirit, embarking on her third or fourth hare-brained career, this one involving a lot of fancy, eco-friendly terms for what seems like straight-up landscaping.
Daughter Joni (Alice in Wonderland’s Mia Wasikowska) and son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) are hitting their teen rebellion years, hard to do in such a boho, determinedly understanding environment. Naturally, they look to their dad…who, in this case, is a sperm donor.
Played with no shortage of comic brilliance in one of the great performances of the year by Mark Ruffalo, Biological Dad is a hippy-dippy organic farmer who runs his own eatery, rides a motorcycle and thinks nothing of dropping phrases like “right on,” into casual conversation. He’s a studly, adorable screw-up, banging waitresses and living the good life until his crunchy world is rocked by the revelation that jerking off into a cup two decades ago created two near-adult children.
What makes The Kids Are All Right so delightful is watching these highly evolved, self-satisfied and articulate people fall apart when base, real-world desires intrude on utopian ideals.
For all the Oprah talk about “your higher self” and incessant New Age mumbo-jumbo, life is much sloppier than the aisles of Restoration Hardware. There are no atheists in foxholes, and no self-help guru in California could possibly intervene once Ruffalo and Moore start working up a sweat tending to his backyard garden.
Cholodenko made 2002’s wonderfully bawdy Laurel Canyon, and The Kids Are All Right cements her status as the only filmmaker working today who makes sex look like fun. These days, it’s startling to see characters in movies behave as if they even have genitals, but Cholodenko’s giggly encounters feel true to life. In an age of airbrushed Maxim poses and Hollywood kabuki sexuality, her awkward hookups are absurdly hot.
Julianne Moore has been hamstrung for too long by a series of angsty roles, and it’s a kick to watch her goof out with clumsy physicality and awful workboots. Meanwhile, Bening’s become such a precise, brittle actress, it’s perfect casting to watch her wind up on too many bottles of wine and unleash—launching into a monologue on the Whole-Foods-fetish-as-snooty-lifestyle-decision that almost made me stand up and applaud. (If I hear one more thing about your fucking heirloom tomatoes…)
Not all that much happens in The Kids Are All Right. Folks screw up, and then they try to make it right. Plot-wise, this is no great shakes, but I really enjoyed spending time with these people. You will, too.
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Starring: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo
Running time: 104 minutes