Lesbian Family Values

Serious comedy, powered by an enthusiastic cast and full of good-natured innuendo, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right gives adolescent coming-of-age and the battle of the sexes a unique twist, in part by creating a romantic triangle between a longstanding, devoutly bourgeois lesbian couple Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) and the newly identified, merrily free-spirited sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), responsible for both of the couple’s teenage children, Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson).

Normality, as made clear by the introductory family dinner that features two mothers acting all motherly, rules. 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), each 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 into and fascinated by the ultra-domestic household created by a pair of charismatic femmes, the swinger is the straight man (literally).

A happily hippified gardener/restaurateur-cum-sex object, Paul is introduced balling his employees and otherwise spreading his (organic) seed. “I love lesbians!” is his initial response upon coming face-to-face with his grown-up spermatozoa and being informed of their family situation. Although it was Laser who prompted the father-and-child reunion, the 15-year-old is a sensitive jock who’s put off by blithely diffident Paul’s lack of enthusiasm for team sports; on the other hand, big sister Joni, still a virgin 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 back yard. (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 the much-abused Frances McDormand with a rare opportunity to strut her stuff and even extracted a more-than-default-decorative turn from Kate Beckinsale. Given a reliably stellar duo in Bening and Moore, Cholodenko makes their rapport her key performance. 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 even gets to drunkenly yowl her way through Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want,” although Jules has the movie’s pre-eminent solo of truth.

Premiered last January at Sundance, The Kids Are All Right triggered considerable discussion as well as a lively bidding war. The enthusiasm is unsurprising. Despite, or perhaps in accordance with, its ’60s rock-&-roll title, it’s actually a pretty conservative movie—particularly when compared with Cholodenko’s previous work. Given its juicy premise, The Kids could have been played for sitcom, reality show or soap opera—had it had 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.

The Kids Are All Right was directed by Lisa Cholodenko; written by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg; and stars Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson. Rated R. Select theaters.

A shortened version of this review appeared in print as “The New Normal: Lesbian family values in The Kids Are All Right.”

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