Questions of family, up-bringing and sexuality are explored with tenderness and a great deal of wit in this thought-provoking family drama
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Cast: Annette Bening (Nic Allgood), Julianne Moore (Jules Allgood), Mark Ruffalo (Paul Hatfield), Mia Wasikowska (Joni Algood), Josh Hutcherson (Laser Allgood), Yaya DaCosta (Tanya), Eddie Hassell (Clay), Zosia Mamet (Sasha)
Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) Allgood are just like any other married couple after years of living together and raising two children: seemingly contented, settled in their ways and routines, missing some of the passion they had in the beginning, locked into their designated roles in the marriage. Nic is the dedicated doctor (with a slight drink problem) whose alpha personality dictates much of how the household is run; Jules is the more relaxed, more bohemian figure, who has rotated through several possible careers while raising their children.
Those children are inadvertently about to shake things up. Both mothers have each given birth to one of the children, using sperm from the same anonymous donor. Older daughter – straight A high-school graduating Joni (Mia Wasikowska) – is Nic’s child; slightly slacker, sports-fixated son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is Jules’. But both children are curious about who their father is: and, with Joni now old enough to request the information, they discover him to be local bohemian restauranteur Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Meeting Paul – and bringing him into their family life – opens up cracks in their parents’ marriage which will have far-reaching consequences.
Some from the LGBTQ community criticised Lisa Cholodenko’ film on its release for presenting a lesbian marriage in such a largely conventional way. In many ways though that is in fact its strength. This engaging dramady doesn’t see anything unusual or unworldly about a lesbian marriage: in fact it shows that the problems that can beset long-term heterosexual marriages are just as likely to happen in homosexual ones. Nic and Jules are essentially – even if they don’t realise it at first – stuck in a rut. The passion has largely gone after years, the knowledge that you need to make an effort has evaporated, too many conversations are about household and parental duties. Jules quietly, almost unknowingly, resents what she sees as Nic’s dominance in their lives, while Nic privately feels she pulls much more weight in keeping things running. Not that they consciously realise this at first, in conversations that drip with in-jokes and a very casual familiarity (both Bening and Moore are superb at embodying a relationship that has become so long-term it has developed its own language).
But into this drops a bombshell in Paul. Wonderfully played by Mark Ruffalo, Paul is relaxed, playful, optimistic and upbeat. To some in the family – in particular Jules and Joni – he is everything that the more uptight and regimented Nic is not. No wonder these two both find themselves drawn to him. Unfortunately, nice guy that he is, Paul is also superbly unruffled by consequences. Events roll off his back. At first this seems like a great thing. He’s patient, understanding and thoughtful when talking to the kids. He helps the uptight Joni to relax. He gives helpful advice to Laser about his unpleasant friend Clay. But his lack of thought about his actions is there from the start (Laser, astutely, is disappointed in his first impression of Paul as self-obsessed). His advice for Joni openly encourages her to defy Nic’s boundaries. He accompanies Laser to watch Clay attempt a dangerous skating stunt like he’s a bro not a dad. And then there is Jules.
The film also drew fire from the LGBTQ community for presenting one half of its normalised lesbian couple entering into an affair with a man. But for Jules, it’s clear, the relationship is really about getting the sort of attention, focus and (to be honest) sexual interest that Nic seemed to stop giving her a long time ago (at one point, Nic prepares a luxurious bath for Jules – but then takes a phone call from work and abandons the promised massage for work). Paul is flirty, sensual and horny: sure he’s a man, but he can give her the sort of sexual pleasure that absent-minded fondlings with Nic late at night no longer even begin to give.
But that’s all it really is to Jules – a sudden, unexpected craving. There is no doubt that her heart belongs to Nic – just as there is no doubt that both she and Nic will be devastated when the affair comes out. (Cholodenko shoots Nic’s realisation beautifully. During a “family dinner” with Paul, the sound drains out during a fixed shot on Bening’s face which pained, heartbroken realisation and anger crosses across. It’s a tour-de-force for Bening that probably went a long way to securing her Oscar nomination). Paul, conversely, seems supremely unaware of the likely impact of his actions – during that family dinner he shows no compunction about bonding for the first time with Nic (who relaxes as we have never seen before until the truth is revealed) over a mutual love for Joni Mitchell.
Paul is, unknowingly, the serpent in the garden that will unbalance the careful equilibrium in the family. Nic is hostile to him from the start, his presence seeming to play into deep rooted insecurities and a fear of being supplanted. For Jules he presents an exotic alternative chance – a relationship with someone who feels accommodating and deferential to her. It blows open the comfortable but familiar rut the two of them are in. In the cracks, Jules becomes distracted and selfish, Nic doubles down on drinking and demands for obedience to her family rules.
If it sounds heavy going, it surprisingly isn’t. Cholodenko (sharing script writing with Stuart Blomberg) throws in plenty of jokes and moments of sweetness. Bening and Moore are both incredibly good in the lead roles: Moore is bubbly, relaxed, sexy but sad deep down dissatisfied and surprisingly selfish. Bening seems at first merely a domineering control freak with a drink problem, but she is revealed as deeply fragile, loving and devoted, a woman whose love is expressed in ways the objects can find overbearing, however well meaning they are. (Wasikowska and Hutcherson are both also great as their kids.)
The Kids Are All Right bubbles with some well judged moments of comedy, drama and tragedy. This is a film, eventually, about the strength of family. Paul may tempt with his care-free optimism and consequence-free thinking. But this film sides, overwhelmingly, with people like Nic who may sometimes make you want to tear your hair out, but will be there time and again, day-after-day, offering love in a way people like Paul never can. Laser and Joni may tease her, may bridle at her rules – but they love her unconditionally, in a way the film shows us with gestures small and large time and again. So, for that matter, does Jules: her actions grow from wanting a more overt return on the affection she more naturally gives.
It’s a film that wears its heart firmly and shamelessly on its sleeve, as it urges us to both recognise and empathise with this fundamentally loving marriage going through a rough patch. And by normalising families like this, it sends a strong message of inclusivity: after all, if we all share the same problems, doesn’t that all help us realise we are the same?