Not unlike 2009's Up in the Air, strong, mature performances from central cast members uplifts Lisa Cholondenko's The Kids Are All Right , an otherwise conventional, middlebrow film. Her third feature still reeks of a slapped-on, Sundance seal of approval, ensuring a pseudo-provocative dysfunctional family narrative, sporadically punctuated by moments of artistic inspiration.
The proof in The Kids Are All Right's simplicity shows in how succinctly it can be explained; Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a lesbian couple with two children - Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). On Joni's 18th birthday, Laser persuades her to seek out their sperm donor Paul(Mark Ruffalo)in hopes of making an emotional connection. Paul's presence (instead of leading to genuine comedic or emotional resonances), only draws forth trite, tidy conflicts, such as an affair with Jules, or resentment from otherwise dominant Nic. Also in typical fashion, opening credits feature an indie - but not indie - song (this time it's Vampire Weekend's "Cousins"), roll-calling important players to come. Laser gets high while Joni talks sex, leading into one of the film's several miscalculated sitcom-esque bits, the first having Nic and Jules fuck while watching gay male porn (but oh no! the volume accidentally gets turned up too loud!), only to later expand the already broad joke by having Jules walk in on Laser and a friend watching the same video, mistaking their snooping for interest.
Much of Cholondenko's script never goes beyond these surface levels conceptually, thus rendering her set-ups flat and all too obvious. Most scenes (such as Paul's first dinner with the family) aren't poorly written, but exist merely to reinforce character traits which will become important later on. It isn't comedic or ironic in any profound way, rather rekindling a nearly identical approach to former Sundance sensation Little Miss Sunshine, substituting cute, but naughty laughs for any darker, truthful edge about American family life. Other elements fall flat too; there's an interesting subplot concerning Nic's need for dominance over Jules which, according to her, is what leads to her wanting to cheat (although, in any film with homosexual leads, the cheating is always curiously heterosexual). Laser experiences a similar circumstance with his dominant male friend, who's imperative-laced rhetoric ultimately forces Laser to confront his subjugation. Cholondenko sets up a potentially interesting parallel, but fails to follow through with any awareness to it. Is she suggesting that all relationships, no matter the sex, rely on these hierarchical dynamics? Or, even more trite, is it simply a quaint life lesson, that it takes mutual trust and respect for any relationship to properly function? Either way, Cholondenko is disinterested in answering this (and other) potential questions, and the film suffers for it.
What ultimately lifts the weak material and almost inflates it to something approaching profundity, though, is Bening and Moore, who inhabit moments of happiness, regret, and forgiveness with complete authenticity. Though Cholondenko's script plays false, the faces on screen rarely lie, making their struggle to retain a nuclear family unit all the more emotionally felt. In the film's best moment, Nic finds some of Jules's hair in Paul's bathtub. Bening's quiet desperation is nicely complimented by a good choice from Cholondenko: to let the air out of the room sonically. She returns to the dinner table, but can't hear the conversation. Her simultaneous confrontation of her own misguided dominance, in conjunction with her lover's deceit proves emotionally overwhelming - yet Nic masks it, denying any sort of histrionic catharsis. Small moments such as these from the core actors (plus a college send-off that easily trumps Toy Story 3 in terms of genuine pathos) afford The Kids Are All Right a sincerity that's hard to disengage from. It's likable and heartfelt. Just don't pretend it's anything more.