So how great is it that the best film about marriage in a long time is about a marriage that can't legally exist in this country? The Kids Are All Right, the new film from Lisa Cholodenko, is about a couple, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), who had two kids via a sperm donor, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (former next-Spider-Man Josh Hutcherson). Laser asks Joni, who is in her last summer at home before college, to look up the name of their sperm donor; though it's never explicitly stated, Laser's looking for a father figure that's never been in his life. The sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), enters their lives, and domestic chaos ensues, as does personal growth.
The miracle of the movie lies in a key part of that very premise: in case you didn't catch it above, Nic and Jules are lesbians. But Cholodenko (who co-wrote the film with Stuart Blumberg) never plays up this fact, nor does the movie waste a single second preaching about why gay rights are important or why gays should be allowed to marry. In fact, with the exception of an early subplot where Nic and Jules question Laser's sexuality, homosexuality is never even referenced. Cholodenko presents this family as just that: a family, with all of the same dynamics as any other family, gay or straight. If any other approach had been taken, it would have cheapened the story and characters, and the film would have suffered. Cholodenko is not a major style director, but she lends exquisite substance to her work.
Wasikowska and Hutcherson
That exquisite substance is the performances; everyone here brings their A-game. Wasikowska, who was so dreadfully misused in Alice in Wonderland earlier this year, is whip-smart and brilliant, and watching her insecurities come out over the course of the film is riveting. Hutcherson, too, proves to be a rising talent, as Laser struggles, as everyone does at his age, to figure out who he is. And Ruffalo is phenomenal, and creates his character fully in his first scene: Paul, oozing laid-back masculinity, picks up vegetables from a co-op and takes them back to his restaurant, after which he beds his hostess. Ruffalo adds layers onto this character over the film, turning him into a complicated, messy person who's really lost in his own life.
Not enough can be said about Bening and Moore, though, who give perhaps the best performances of their careers. They have great chemistry together, and you can easily believe that, despite their polar opposite personalities (Nic is uptight and structured, Jules is loose and free-flowing), these two could last 20 years together. Their marriage has its problems, and both actresses make these conflicts evident without having showy shouting-matches of exposition. In fact, in the film's best scene, in which the whole family has dinner at Paul's, both women get their own moments in which, showcasing their superlative acting, they say everything they're thinking without saying a single word (seriously, I've haven't seen a look as devastating as Bening's during this scene in a long time).
Bening and Moore
If I have any complaints about the film, its that two of the film's subplots, Paul's relationship with Tanya (the hostess) and Laser's "friendship" with Clay, don't really get natural endings. But this is a minor issue compared with everything the film does right. I know its a cliche to say this now, but the kids are more than all right. They're just about perfect.