MOVIE REVIEW: Much more than ‘All Right’

Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson, Mia Wasikowska and Mark Ruffalo: We're a happy family. Then again, maybe not.

Fast-forward to five, six years from now — provided, of course, the radical right doesn’t take over the country and we all manage to get past the end of the Mayan calendar. Gay marriage will be a long-settled issue in America, and we’ll have seen enough films and TV shows with gay relationships that we’ll all yawn or just glance without a second thought.

And given that scenario, we’ll still look back and talk about how excellent a movie “The Kids Are All Right” was.

Writer/director Lisa Cholodenko’s twist on the nuclear family dynamics is a perfect harmonic convergence of disharmony: two Oscar-nominated actresses at artistic peaks and two promising teenage actors brilliantly playing out a scenario in which a major monkey wrench is thrown into a lengthy relationship, causing upheaval to everyone involved. It’s not just acting at its best, but writing at its most brilliant and directing at its most nuanced.

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are in a lengthy relationship in Los Angeles, and both have given birth to children via the same sperm donor: 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska), by Nic; and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson), via Jules. Nic is a doctor, while Jules, the dutiful wife, has given up her career aspirations to take care of the kids — though, at the outset, she has bought a beat-up landscaping truck with hopes of starting a business.

Laser hangs out with his bad-seed skateboard-punk-dude friend, Clay (Eddie Hassell), who eggs him (“Don’t be such a fag”) into experimenting with drugs and rifling through his moms’ drawers to find their hardcore gay-man porn. Joni, named after Nic’s favorite singer, Joni Mitchell, is an ideal kid out of Child Casting Central: blonde, pretty, down-to-earth, straight A’s, a National Merit Scholar in science, headed off to college in a month. But all is not as picture-perfect as it seems on the surface.

In that passive-aggressive California way that truly annoys the shit out of me (and many others of the East Coast persuasion), Nic expresses her displeasure that her wife would even want to start something of her own. She’s the major breadwinner, of course, and being such allows her to maintain a goodly amount of control over the family dynamic. In fact, the snippy comments (and eventual apologies) and copious amounts of red wine consumed add up throughout the film to subtly reveal a major control freak.

Jules, meanwhile, is passive without the aggressive — hippie/new-agey and annoying, also in a California way; after all, this is the one who named her kid Laser — and, conversely, you see the resentments slowly simmering beneath what seems, on the surface, to be a perfect relationship.

The disruptive monkey wrench comes courtesy of a kid’s natural curiosity.

Laser, who’s questioning a lot of things in his life, enlists big sister, now a legal adult, to contact the fertility clinic to find out who their father is. Turns out he’s Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a motorcycle-riding guy in his late 30s who owns a trendy restaurant specializing in locally grown organic foods. He’s also in a seemingly happy relationship, with Tanya (Yaya DaCosta), a stunning, younger black woman who works for him.

The kids tentatively make a connection with him and, naturally, want to know more about him; Paul, who’s stunned when he gets the call from the clinic over something he did a long time ago for 60 bucks, wants to know about these kids. A relationship develops — not quite fatherly, of course, but with traces of paternalism — and the kids start spending a little more time with him.

The kids’ revelation seems to floor Nic; it upsets this tightly controlled family she has woven, and she, in her passive-aggressive way, barely contains her displeasure. Jules, meanwhile, is much more curious about the father of their kids; he exudes a sense of freedom and autonomy that she hadn’t truly realized was missing from her life.

To not give anything away, let’s just say the addition of Paul to the mix threatens to blow everyone’s relationships to smithereens. Hilarity does not ensue.

Cholodenko, of course, exerts her own sense of tight control here — in this case, the ideal situation of being able to translate her written vision to the screen in just the way she wants.

This is not an easy film to sit through. The story lobs plenty of emotional hand grenades and buzzkills into the characters’ lives, even though, for the most part, you know what’s coming. It’s a predictable movie, but I mean that in the best way possible. In fact, there were a couple of times where I was able to guess the character’s next lines or moves. But that meant the characters’ reactions were true, very human ones. They reacted just as you would expect a family to react in the face of an unfolding upheaval. The notes in the film grow increasingly discordant, but never do they ring false.

Of course, since we’re dealing with a visual medium here, it takes stellar acting to convey all the tiny nuances hinted at in the writing. Both Bening, three times an Academy Award nominee, and Moore, four times nominated — both were up for Best Actress in 1999 but lost to Hilary Swank — give performances worthy of their first statuettes here; if Academy rules weren’t what they were — Bening gets top billing — they would both be up for Best Actress come winter.

Bening shows just the right amounts and shades of energy Nic musters in her attempts to keep her semblance of control over not only her family, but her own world, as they both unravel. Moore, as the long-suppressed free spirit, shows great restraint as well in letting Jules unfurl her newfound wings — slowly and tentatively at first, then with a fury.

The other principals, likewise, give perfectly nuanced performances without the contrived semblance of perfection. Ruffalo, who co-starred with Moore in 2008’s “Blindness,” gives his Paul an air of pride and self-confidence, eventually mixed with equal parts bewilderment, empathy, regret and male libido, as he discovers that every action has a reaction, even years later. Wasikowska, last seen in the title role in “Alice in Wonderland,” plays to the T the young woman who did everything her parents wanted and now lurches forward as she demands to be treated as her own person. Hutcherson conveys the typical laconic teenage male who’s not beyond making a sage observation when you scratch the surface.

What this boils down to, when you (quickly) get past the lesbian moms and the sperm donor: “The Kids Are All Right” is a story about what a complication does to a typical American family. What’s not typical here is the caliber of the writing, directing and acting. The family in question might not mesh as perfectly as it seems at first, but the film certainly does.

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One Response to “MOVIE REVIEW: Much more than ‘All Right’”

  1. lexy Says:

    yo! i’m waiting for it on video! more in my financial bracket. my mom loved it too, said it was TERRIFIC! thanks for the heads up!

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