When you don’t believe that a truth is self-evident, you justify it to others. You try to explain.
What a lot of people are rushing to say about the Kids Are All Right (a favorite at the Sundance and Berlin festivals) is that it’s a normal movie, or it’s relatable, or it’s really — when you get right down to it — all about family, in the very broadest sense. It’s about any family, really! And hey — families! — God knows we’ve all been there!
For Christ’s sake. No, we haven’t all been there. This is a movie about a lesbian couple raising two teenage children in Southern California. The odds that we have been there, or anywhere close to there, are extremely small. And there’s no reason why that should be a turn-off; don’t we love movies that aren’t about where we’ve been?
What defenders of this film are, I imagine, trying to say, is that the Kids Are All Right isn’t a piece of gay “propaganda.” They might also be trying to say: What goes on in same-sex relationships is very similar to what goes on in straight relationships. Which is a bit like saying: We have common human bonds. Or maybe it’s like saying: Straight relationships are the gold standard. This line of defense gets very knotty, and potentially a little cruel.
So let’s accept vibrant difference as a wonderful thing. And let’s celebrate the fact that this movie isn’t propaganda at all. Propaganda makes for bad art, and this is very good art. The Kids Are All Right doesn’t spend any time justifying or over-explaining its subject matter, save one fleeting early scene in which our heroines pointedly brush lips over the familial dinner table with excruciating languor, as though the film is coughing, adjusting its tie, and announcing: “Enter the homosexuals.” But otherwise, the movie simply plunges on, as well it should.
Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, both makeup-free and earthily gorgeous) are fairly happily coupled. They cuddle up on the couch, mutter pet names to each other (Jules is ‘Chicken’), enjoy a reasonably happy-seeming sex life, and co-parent their two children with love and goodwill. There are also, of course, snags: Nic works long hours as a doctor and unwinds with conspicuous volumes of wine, while Jules frets about her lack of direction, her never-completed college education, and her fledgling landscaping business. The younger of the two, Jules seems blighted by immaturity — it’s like honey spilled in your hair: you flail, you try to get it out, but it just gets worse.
Summer begins and their daughter, the flaxen-haired Joni (Mia Wasikowska, who played the title role in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland), has just graduated from high school. She and her younger brother, Laser (John Hutcherson), were each conceived with one of their “Moms’s” eggs and a vial from the same sperm donor, but neither sibling knows anything about their biological father. Now that Joni has turned eighteen, Laser pushes her to exercise her right to contact the donor. She does.
Into their lives ambles the sperm-spource, Paul (Mark Ruffalo in an incredibly winning performance), a groovy local who grows his own vegetables, rides a motorcycle, and operates an impossibly cool restaurant. Joni loves him, Laser bristles at him, and Nic and Jules nearly erupt when they hear their kids have been spending time with a stranger. But they relent, agree to meet Paul, and grow — haltingly — closer to him.
As it follows its characters through the space of a Southern California summer, the Kids Are All Right tracks the effects of a single catalyst — Paul. He arrives, shakes life up, and inadvertently sheds light on bruises that were, to be fair, already ripening. This drop-a-pebble-in-the-pond-and-watch-the-ripples approach is a particular strength of co-writer/director Lisa Cholodenko’s. (See 2002′s Laurel Canyon, in which Frances McDormand shines as a free-loving music producer and errant mom to Christian Bale). The story is simple, contained, measured and near-perfect.
If I could call this film to task for one thing, it would be its laxness with names. Joni is named after Joni Mitchell (of course), but why is Laser named Laser? And why don’t the kids have individual names for their Moms? I would also complain about the semi-schlocky soundtrack. But I would — and will! — rave about the tightness of this movie, which glides along like a boat with its sails pulled perfectly taut, embracing a delicious tension. There are no spikes or lulls, just scene after scene of this compulsively watchable cast. Perhaps Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg were worried about treating Sapphism too heavy-handedly. If so, that worried-ness served them well; the Kids Are All Right is nothing if not restrained, delicate, mature.
A brief digression:
When I was thirteen, I heard Joni Mitchell for the first time on my father’s car stereo. We all have these arresting moments; music slaps us or puts its hand into our hand, or something. “Help Me” was the song that struck me.
Every other Saturday, my father and I would drive up the Merritt Parkway to a town by the ocean where our therapist practiced in a small white house. The therapist — kohl-eyed, in enormous scarves — is beside the point. But on one of our drives home, my father played Joni, and what I knew immediately was this: Everything that Joni said was true and real. She said things like:
We love our loving, but not like we love our freedom
I will bring you incense owls by night
God knows what an incense owl is, and God knows I’d never felt what Joni had felt or seen what she’d seen. And in spite of all my grasping impulses, it didn’t occur to me to covet her experience. I simply knew that what Joni sang was true, by which I mean that her emotions were true. They existed, they had been felt, they had been fully and properly expressed, and that was enough to draw me in. Sometimes a brand new truth is so true that there’s no need to question it.
There’s lots to watch for in the Kids Are All Right. The California hues in this movie are just gorgeous, and if you’ve never seen flowers bathed in that flat, amber-colored light, well, know that this is just what California looks like. And people like Nic and Jules do exist — and that is how they dress, and their kitchens are that perfect. And sometimes Californians do tire of the whole hippie-dippie routine and snap, as Nic does, “if I hear one more person say they love heirloom tomatoes, I’m gonna fucking kill myself.”
Joni and Laser veer off from their parents in a perfectly natural adolescent push for independence, and Paul struggles with new love and responsibility, but this movie is mostly about Nic and Jules, and the ways in which time and familiarity can quite accidentally turn lovers into wardens. Moore evokes real pain and lurching tenderness, while Bening brings us an almost-seamless evocation of a certain brand of butchness. She falters, sometimes, and lapses into a kind of reflex physical languidness, but those moments are rare.
Something breathtaking happens around the middle of this film. I won’t give too much away, but Nic is sitting at the dinner table, and she and Paul are doing this impromptu duet of Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want,” and Nic breaks off into a very awkward solo, and then minutes later we’re right inside her head, and we can hear the world thrumming around her, and maybe you’ve never felt that way before — the way Joni felt, or the way Nic feels — but you can instantly recognize it as real, as true. If this moment, and others like it, grab you, then the Kids Are All Right doesn’t need any ideological defenses. It’s deeply felt, fully and properly expressed, and perhaps that’s enough.