Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right is serious comedy powered by an enthusiastic cast and full of good-natured innuendo. It gives a different twist to the battle-of-the-sexes and the adolescent coming-of-age stories, in part by creating a romantic triangle among a long-standing and devoutly bourgeois lesbian couple, Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), and the newly identified, merrily free-spirited sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who's responsible for the couple's two teenage children, Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson).
Normality rules, as made clear by the introductory family dinner. The kids refer to their American-as-apple-pie parents in the plural, as in "that really hurt the moms' feelings." (The moms' designated kink is their occasional use of gay male porn as an aphrodisiac — although, even this gets an amusingly didactic explanation.) Whereas Cholodenko's two previous features, High Art (1998) and Laurel Canyon (2003), focused on an innocent young woman swept up in the glamorously baffling sex-and-drugs scene swirling around a charismatic older female artist, the situation here is reversed; unexpectedly drawn in to, and fascinated by, the ultra-domestic household created by a pair of charismatic women, the swinger is the straight man (literally).
A happily hippified gardener, restaurateur and sex object, Paul is introduced balling his employees and otherwise spreading his (organic) seed. "I love lesbians!" is his initial response upon meeting his grown-up spermatozoa and being informed of their family situation. Fifteen-year-old Laser, a sensitive jock, prompts the father-and-child reunion but is put-off by the blithely diffident Paul's lack of enthusiasm for team sports; on the other hand, big sister Joni, on the eve of college, finds this groovy stud really cool (as in hot). And so does Jules, especially after Paul engages her to landscape his backyard. (Unlike her workaholic doctor spouse, she has a bit of time on her hands.) We can tell where this is going when she describes Paul's overgrown grounds as "fecund."
Cholodenko's previous features have amply demonstrated her talent for directing actresses. High Art, her genuinely edgy debut, gave aged-out brat-packer Ally Sheedy the opportunity to give her first real adult performance as a reclusive photographer, while memorably showcasing then-unknown Patricia Clarkson as Sheedy's hilariously Teutonic lover. Laurel Canyon provided Frances McDormand an opportunity to strut her stuff, and it even extracted a more than default-decorative turn from Kate Beckinsale. Given a reliably stellar duo in Bening and Moore, Cholodenko makes their rapport key. The actresses are loose and funny, trading off big scenes and clearly enjoying themselves throughout. The acerbic Nic gets the best lines ("I need your observations like I need a dick in my ass!" she snaps, when Paul presumes to offer her parenting advice) and gets to drunkenly yowl her way through Joni Mitchell's "All I Want," although Jules has the movie's pre-eminent solo of truth.
Premiering last January at Sundance, The Kids Are All Right triggered considerable discussion as well as a lively bidding war. The excitement is unsurprising. Despite, or perhaps in accordance with, its '60s rock-and-roll title, it's actually a pretty conservative movie, particularly when compared with Cholodenko's previous works. Given its juicy premise, The Kids could have been played for a sitcom, a reality show or a soap opera. Had it been made in 1970, it might have been an Echo Park Teorema, with everyone winding up in bed together. Ten years into the 21st century, it's a heartfelt poster for family values. Everything new is old again.