Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Kids Are All Right

Note: The Kids Are All Right was released in July 2010, but I didn’t see it until February 2011.

The Kids Are All Right is a solid entry in one of my least favorite genres of cinema: the dysfunctional family dramedy. As soon as I say that, I must admit that one my favorite movies, American Beauty, is a pillar of that genre. Since 1999, I’ve seen many dark comedies about crumbling families; some have been better than others, but none have matched American Beauty. The Kids Are All Right is notable for its strong performances and for its effective portrayal of a same-sex marriage, but it isn’t particularly thought-provoking or profound.

The kids of the title are teenagers Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). We later learn that Joni was named after Joni Mitchell, but if the writers were going to account for where only one of the kids’ names came from, was Joni really the one that demanded explanation? Joni and Laser have two moms, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore). When the teens become curious about their sperm-donating birth father, they arrange for a meeting. He’s Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a middle-aged bachelor who, upon being contacted, wishes to be involved in their lives. As Paul gradually enters the family dynamic, everything soon turns complicated.

The strength of the screenplay is in Nic and Jules’ relationship. The Kids Are All Right heavily features a gay marriage, but the movie isn’t really about gay issues. Nic and Jules’ marriage features the same kinds of moments and dialogue you would find in a heterosexual marriage. Unlike some movies where gay characters are portrayed as being unnaturally stable, Nic and Jules aren’t any wiser for being gay, nor is their relationship somehow superior to the straight relationships around them. The family is largely dysfunctional, to be sure, but the homosexual component isn’t part of the dysfunction. The marriage onscreen is an authentic relationship between two parents, including all of the drama that comes with raising teenagers.

Performances are strong throughout. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore make their marriage feel comfortable and lived in. Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson underplay their teenage roles well; teens often clam-up around new people, and Joni and Laser feel like real teens to me (even if Laser isn’t a real name; seriously, I’m having a hard time letting that one go). Mark Ruffalo plays Paul to perfection. He’s a nice guy who wants to make something of his life, but he lacks the values and conviction to make that happen. He’s a bachelor adrift, tossed from one moment to the next without much purpose or self control.

The Kids Are All Right effectively mixes its drama and its humor, though the overall experience is more depressing than funny. It’s never as poignant as American Beauty or as humorous as Little Miss Sunshine. Despite some strong moments and clever exchanges, The Kids Are All Right still comes up short on purpose. It makes for a very believable slice of life/character study, but the characters don’t make much of a journey towards improvement. It’s not required that good movies include such arcs, but with such strong characterization and acting, I hoped for more character development.

The main message here is that having a successful marriage is tough. We already knew this. The secondary message is that homosexual relationships are a lot like heterosexual ones. As gay marriage becomes more and more culturally accepted, so will gay divorce, because there isn’t anything magical about a same-sex union. A lifelong marriage is a hard row to hoe any way you look at it, but as difficult as it is, it’s ultimately rewarding. As the credits rolled, I pondered the title sentiment; are the kids all right? I guess, but they’ve been through some serious stuff. The Kids Are All Right is a good dark comedy, but it would have benefitted from a little more comedy and a little less dark.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language, and some teen drug and alcohol use.

The Kids Are All Right is an adult dark comedy. There are a few straightforward sex scenes with nudity, characters regularly use strong language, and the overall themes are heavy.

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