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Teen Review: ‘The Kids Are All Right’

The Kids Are More Than All Right for Teen Critic

Above: Annette Bening and Julianne Moore star as a lesbian couple in "The Kids Are All Right"

“The Kids Are Alright” (opened July 16 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas) was one of the most talked-about films coming out of Sundance back in January and, if the screening I attended is any indication, it’s gearing itself up to be just as talked-about by the time Academy voters check off their ballots this upcoming January.

To be sure, this film is quite a bit more deserving of such talk than most in this so far spectacularly unspectacular year for movies. “The Kids Are Alright” features some of the more refined writing, directing, and acting of any film this year. Yet, I cannot shake the feeling that this film comes off as just a bit too underwhelming when all is said and done.

The film tells the story of a family headed by a lesbian couple: the at times severe, avid wine enthusiast Nic (Annette Bening), and the slightly more free-spirited, professionally unfocused Jules (Julianne Moore). The two have remained together for many years and even managed to raise a family, after having a girl, Joni (Mia Wasikowska, from “Alice in Wonderland”), and a boy, Laser (Josh Hutcherson), through the help of donated sperm.

As the film starts, Joni is preparing to head off to college in a matter of weeks, while Laser has become increasingly persistent about discovering the identity of their biological father. Eventually, Laser convinces Joni to contact their donor and the three of them agree to meet. The donor in question, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), is a hip, alternative, if somewhat pretentious, guy who’s never quite managed to settle down -- even though he’s approaching his 40s. The meeting goes well for the most part, but of course, Paul doesn’t remain a secret for very long. He gradually becomes a more permanent fixture in the family’s life, much to the chagrin of Nic, whose worst fears come true as Paul’s presence goes from a pleasure to a strain on all of them.

Mark Ruffalo plays a sperm donor in "The Kids Are All Right"

Focus Features

Above: Mark Ruffalo plays a sperm donor in "The Kids Are All Right"

If there’s one thing to praise here, it’s the performances. Everyone gives incredibly affecting, genuine, and lived-in performances that make up the heart and soul of the film. Although I don’t wish to short change anyone involved, it’s Annette Bening who really owns the show, delivering what is easily one of the best performances of the year as a proud, threatened, and rigid yet always loving parent and spouse. One scene in particular, during a dinner at Paul’s house, features perhaps the most heart-breaking moment I’ve seen all year. But it’s not just Bening’s performance that makes it work, but nearly every element at play (framing, lighting, editing, sound mixing, etc.), and it’s a wonderful sight to behold.

Obviously, kudos must also go to director and co-writer Lisa Cholodenko, whose vision and realization of a family that, despite its untraditional circumstances, echoes truths universal to any family is an remarkable achievement. To be sure, it can’t be an easy task to make an audience-friendly dramedy about two lesbians raising a family, but she manages it well enough.

Yet therein lies one of my issues with the film in that it at times seems to shortchange its own integrity to satisfy the whims of an audience looking for a quirky, lighter touch to their independent films (a la “Little Miss Sunshine” or “(500) Days of Summer”). Of course, most of the humor is effective. But a romantic plot that’s developed somewhat ineffectively between Paul and Jules seems to cheapen some interesting insights regarding the sexual psychology of a lesbian couple. Consider, for instance, the scene when Jules unzips Paul’s pants only to exude a flustered “wow!” That’s a cheap laugh.

However, the film achieves wonderful moments of genuine humor, compassion, pain, fear, and humanity. Plus, there’s something to be admired in Cholodenko’s decision to unlock the underlying tensions of this family by reintroducing a neglected player in the creation, yet not the foundation, of this family in Ruffalo’s sperm donor.

In the end, “The Kids Are All Right” (rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some teen drug and alcohol use) delivers an interesting and mostly compelling view of a time in the life of -- to paraphrase a line in the film – “a most unconventional family,” and it’s certainly worth taking a look at.

-Michael Shymon just finished his freshman year at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts where he's studying Film & Television Production. He's hoping one day all this movie watching will finally pay off. While he's home for summer break in San Diego, he'll be resuming his duties as a KPBS Teen Critic.

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