Kids Are All Right, The (2010): Cholodenko’s Oscar Nominee, Attempt at Lesbian Screwball Comedy (LGBTQ, Lesbian)

The story of an unconventional family torn asunder by sexual politics and complicated personal dynamics, Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” is funky, open-minded, and entertaining screwball farce.
Grade: B+
The film world premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Fest, in January, then played with great success at the Berlin Film Fest and is now the opening night of the L.A. Film Fest.  Focus Features stands to score big with its likable, star-driven (Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo) comedy, when it opens July 9.  As of today, it’s one of the most relevant and most entertaining movies of the year.
 
This is just the third feature and the first in six years by the very gifted Cholodenko (“High Art,” “Laurel Canyon”). She displays an unusual stylistic fluency and grace in subverting, sexually and politically, a story recognizable from the works of Jean Renoir (“Boudu Saved from Drowning”) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (“Teorema”) of the stranger who shakes up a family by invading their orderly, bourgeois existence.
Cholodenko wrote the script with Stuart Blumberg. The key reversal here is the comfortable, privileged couple is a lesbian partnership. Annette Benning and Julianne Moore are the parents of teenaged children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), a pair of bright, industrious and curious kids.
At the start, Cholodenko deftly illustrates how the class distinction, professional standing and role-playing of the central couple are virtually inseparable from that of a heterosexual relationship. A doctor, Nic (Benning) is the family’s dominant provider, and completely unabashed about asserting her will and authority over the rest of the family. Jules (Moore) is less confrontational, a more natural free spirit who holds the family together and chafes outwardly at Nic’s occasional heavy hand.
The family’s world is fundamentally altered when Laser pushes Joni, on the occasion of her 18th birthday, to facilitate contact with their biological father, their sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo). He’s a ruggedly good-looking entrepreneur with a bohemian sensibility, the owner of a fashionable restaurant. During an introduction with the kids, Paul makes an instantly strong impression with his preternatural cool, ease and grace.

The two women have sharply contrasting responses. Jules also believes he’s magnetic and open, and likes the fact the kids have a responsible adult male figure in their lives. Nic is more wary and withholding and she is clearly bothered by his hipster’s sense of entitlement and emotional cool.
Complications naturally ensue, and the most controversial development is the intimate relationship that develops between Paul and Jules after he hires her to coordinate a gardening landscape job at his home. Cholodenko is taking a risk and has already taken some severe criticism by the implicit sexual politics of having a gay woman surrender herself sexually to an attractive straight man. (She stages the sex scenes between them very enthusiastically.) The larger point appears one of personality, not sexuality. Jules has been subjugated, historically, to a more passive role in her own family. Her “betrayal,” is less a rebuke to her sexuality than to her growing disenchantment about the manner she is marginalized in the family hierarchy. Paul is logically her financial sponsor, but the work she turns out validates her own worth and value outside the home.
Cholodenko and Blumberg are both skilled writers, farceurs, and neither seems particularly interested in staking out doctrinaire positions about sexuality but documenting, in sometimes hilariously discomforting strokes, behavior and attitudes. The cinematography, by Igor Jadue-Lillo, is unforced and vibrant and very much attuned to the sun-drenched California imagery that casually, hypnotically suggests anything is possible.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

Cholodenko teases out her ideas visually, bracketed by electric comic timing, like the passing exchanges between Paul and a gardener about Jules’ soulful attractiveness and dreamy sexuality.
When the news of the affair breaks, it carries severe consequences and Paul is instantly ostracized from his adoptive family and cast in a very different light, his hedonism suddenly not appearing so attractive or desirable. “This is not your family, it is mine,” Nic admonishes him. “The Kids Are All Right” gets at something pure, beautiful and dramatically involving by exploring through a combination of humor and heartbreak essential questions of individualism and longing.
If there are criticisms weighed against Cholodenko, the more damning one is perhaps the too dreamy Utopian paradise the family has sculpted and the too idealized way the outside world is too accepting of their unorthodox family dynamics. A subplot involving Laser’s only friend (Eddie Hassell), a budding psychopath who snorts speed and carries out sadistic cruelty to animals, is also one of the few off-register notes in the film.
The acting is sensational. Benning, Moore and especially Ruffalo are at their most appealing, funny, argumentative and liberating. Each clearly relishes the wit, speed and intensity of their characters; the comebacks, putdowns and rejoinders are typically steeped in sexual imagery pitched wildly between control and domination. The thin, intense Wasikowska is the movie’s revelation. She’s funny, tough, sexy and has a jet propelled tenacity and resolve. (She’s also Australian and her accent is flawless. Years before Cholodenko helped discover the other smashing, beautiful Aussie actress, Radha Mitchell, in “High Art.”)
After the emotional back and forth and volatile drama, Cholodenko pulls back and finds an appropriately low-key though difficult conclusion where the fireworks are cast to the side and what matters are the interconnecting relationship of two mothers and a daughter and son, sister and brother. It is neither dread nor high hope, but something more tenuous and difficult to describe, the in-between, sustaining and carrying everybody along for the jolting and unpredictable ride.
Cast

Jules – Julianne Moore
Nic – Annette Bening
Paul – Mark Ruffalo
Joni – Mia Wasikowska
Laser – Josh Hutcherson
Jai – Kunal Sharma
Clay – Eddie Hassell
Sasha – Zosia Mamet
Tanya – Yaya Dacosta
Luis – Joaquin Garrido

 

  Credits

A Gilbert Films presentation of an Antidote Films, Plum Pictures production.
Produced by Gary Gilbert, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Celine Rattray, Jordan Horowitz, Daniela Taplin Lundberg.
Executive producers, Steven Saxton, Ron Stein, Christy Cashman, Anne O’Shea, Riva Marker, Andrew Sawyer, Neil Katz, J. Todd Harris.
Co-producers, Charles E. Bush, Jr., Joel Newton, Todd Labarowski.
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko.

Screenplay, Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg.

Camera, Igor Jadue-Lillo.

Editor, Jeffrey M. Werner.
Music, Craig Wedren, Nathan Larson.
Production designer, Julie Berghoff.
Art director, James Pearse Connelly.
Se decorator, David Cook.
Costume designer, Mary Claire Hannan.
Sound, Jose Antonio Garcia; supervising sound editor, Joe Lemola; re-recording mixers, Elmo Weber, Frank Gaeta, Patrick Giuraudi.
Visual effects, Scale; stunt coordinator, Mark Norby.
Assistant director, Jesse Nye.
Casting, Laura Rosenthal, Liz Dean.

 

 Running time: 104 Minutes.

By Patrick Z. McGavin