The moment after The Kids Are All Right bursts open with a feverish soundtrack, it is easy to see that this movie has great energy. And energy alone can make a movie survivable. It’s a good sign to have it all up front. But the sign of a movie that is truly worth your time is one that can maintain that energy, convince you that its characters are worth caring about and perhaps move you in some way emotionally. This isn’t anything new — in fact, it’s been the focus of many of my reviews from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. There have been more than a few films that have been on one side of the energy spectrum or the other. Lisa Cholodenko’s modern alt-family comedy has this energy from the start, and it carries it throughout.
The film follows a Nic and Jules (Annette Benning and Julianne Moore), a middle-aged couple trying to raise their two teenage children Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) in suburban Los Angeles. And everything seems to be going just fine until the moment Joni turns 18 and is convinced by her brother to reach out to their biological father. Hesitating at first, Joni eventually puts in a call to the sperm bank, who puts her in touch with Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a restaurant owner and all around “cool dude” who seems willing to meet the kids he never knew he had.
As Paul comes into their lives, the entire family is thrown into disarray. The kids take to Paul in different ways, as to Nic and Jules, all creating a very sticky situation that threatens the otherwise normal existence of their family.
If there’s one thing to be gleaned from this film right off the bat, it is the quality of chemistry between Annette Benning and Julianne Moore. They are a very believable, charming couple of middle age lesbians who have clearly had a good, long relationship and are focused on raising their kids. This situation also benefits from having two great actresses in these roles. Both Benning and Moore are dynamic actresses, and this feels like a perfect showcase for their talent.
Also on the plus side are the performances from the kids, who are in fact all right (excuse my pun, it was there). Mia Wasikowska is not only delightful, but full of depth. As her character connects and disconnects with Paul, she carries the weight of a teen coming of age, trying to find her exact place (socially, sexually and within her own family) before departing for college. Josh Hutcherson is also quite good, continuing his development as an actor. Though, this is yet another angsty role for him, something that has become a trend (though for now, it works). The final piece to the puzzle is Ruffalo, who is as good as ever.
The Kids Are All Right is a sweet film that plays relatively fast and loose with sexuality, but never loses focus on it’s core story. It is a richly drawn portrait of a very modern family that is grounded, imperfect and told with a very keen eye from Cholodenko, who was last at Sundance in 2003 with Laurel Canyon. Her ability to keep the story moving as she unwraps the vulnerable nature of each character, all while delivering a lot of great little comedic moments (especially driven by great back and forth between Ruffalo and Benning) makes the film a very easy, enjoyable experience.
The only problem to be found is that the film stumbles around a bit as it comes to a sweet close. But its a sweet, moving close either way. Driven by a tight, well-rounded story and performances that drive comedy and tension, The Kids Are All Right is yet another smooth winner of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It is also certainly one of those movies that should find success beyond the fest circuit, as it is as accessible as a story about two lesbians trying to raise their teenage children can be.