Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Family Ties: THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT

Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right arrives as one of the most acclaimed films of the year. While I don’t find myself in agreement with the most ebullient of raves, I can understand where they’re coming from. It didn’t entirely thrill me with its charm, but I nonetheless found the film to be a source of great enjoyment. As a portrait of a marriage, as a portrait of a family, I appreciated its honesty. As a comedy, I appreciated its wit. It’s well done.

On the plot level, I found the film to be surprisingly lacking. The film finds a family’s teenage daughter (Mia Wasikowska) getting ready to leave for college. It also finds fractures in its lead couple’s marriage. Both aspects of the plot are joined by its greatest inspiration, the introduction of the daughter’s, and her brother’s, “real” father (Mark Ruffalo), a sperm donor. What makes the film’s fairly standard family dramedey plot sing with small originality is the fact the parents are lesbians. Annette Benning and Julianne Moore are convincing as an aging married couple, with Benning delivering an especially rich performance.

While the film is about a gay marriage, it never lingers on that fact. It doesn’t become a parade of one-note scenes that chip away at an obvious message of tolerance. This sure isn’t a remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Instead, the film is simply a routine indie-comedy about a family, about parenting, about marriage. In fact, the sense of familiarity sometimes works against the film, but by keeping the message implied, Cholodenko ends up making the message even stronger.

Benning and Moore play characters that are not far from the parent characters in any other film of this type, but they have the added benefit of additional nuance. They’re a loving couple with small cracks in their relationship that will only be widened by secrets and ever-increasing busyness. Wasikowska and her brother, played by Josh Hutcherson, are perfectly normal teens. They push back against their parents while still finding themselves drawn to the comfort they represent. But, of course, they’re also curious about their donor-dad.

Ruffalo’s character feels more like a plot point than a character. Despite fine acting, the donor-dad is ultimately just an excuse for all of the other characters to react in ways that reveal their character through behaviors that aren’t always interesting. He’s an excuse for characters to reveal their thoughts and personalities without resorting to monologues. Ruffalo’s as charming as always, and the unknown donor angle keeps the movie fresh while giving it an attractive, intriguing hook. But I couldn’t help feeling that I would rather the film have just focused on the four most intriguing characters instead of becoming a subdued farce.

Yet, plot quibbles aside, the movie really works on an emotional level. I loved the tone of the piece, a melancholic lightness that feels just right for the last summer before the first child goes away to college. There’s a palpable sense of a family on the brink of change, a sense that’s only aggravated (almost unnecessarily so) by the literal plotting of the film. The editing is razor sharp; there’s a nice shape to the scenes. There’s an honest, good-natured randy quality to some of the humor that shoots through the relationships, a candidness in the family that is admirable and funny.

This is a picture of such generous clarity and truthfulness that, by the end, I didn’t care about the story at all. Instead, I loved these characters. I loved this family. I had a feeling that whatever happened to them, I’d love to watch. No story could squelch the contagious, warm-hearted goodwill these characters exude.

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