Wednesday, 3 November 2010

'The Kids Are All Right' review:

It is not often that homosexuality is presented on movie screens as smartly, as sweetly and as frankly as it is in Lisa Cholodenko's brilliantly acted family drama 'The Kids Are All Right'. The film looks at a modern family headed by two women, Jules and Nic played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, and their two children conceived via an anonymous sperm donor. The family are functional, loving and the fact that it is headed by a pair of lesbians is almost incidental. Which is not to say that the film ignores the characters sexuality, but just that the couple's relationship is never exaggerated or patronised by Cholodenko, who also co-wrote the screenplay.

As functional and healthy as they are, the family (like all families) has its problems. The son, Laser (Josh Hutcherson), is in a destructive friendship which is causing him to behave antisocially, whilst the daughter, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), is a straight 'A' student who has recently turned eighteen and is increasingly fed up with her parents refusal to treat her like an adult. Meanwhile, Jules feels taken for granted by Nic, who seems to spend more time working than paying her attention and who even seems to belittle her contribution to the household following a series of aborted business ideas. Nic, in turn, feels burdened by her position as the breadwinner and as the strict parent.

Breaking the relative equilibrium, and bringing some of these background problems to the fore, is the sudden appearance of the kid's genetic father on scene. At the behest of her younger brother, Joni uses her status as a legal adult to make contact with her parent's sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who immediately ingratiates himself with most of the family and becomes a regular part of their lives - attempting to become a permanent fixture and establish himself as the children's father. Soon the kids are breaking rules laid down by their parents, whilst Jules becomes rather too close to Paul whilst working to redesign his garden with her fledgling landscaping company.

That plotline and the dynamic between all the central characters isn't exactly virgin territory and you could be forgiven for groaning when the film includes a tired "young-lady-I-forbid-you-to-ride-that-motorcycle" sub-plot, seemingly carried over from any number of trite 90s US sitcoms. But what marks this film apart from more hackneyed fare is the depth of the characters (none of whom are judged by the writing) and the performances of the actors. Each of the characters operates in three dimensions with each of them flawed in their own way. But none are flawed in any way which is obvious and none of the film's conflicts stem from lazy and contrived scenes of miscommunication. The family ring true as a family and it is testament to the great skill of the filmmakers and their actors that the film's brighter moments never feel overly sentimental or cheesy.

Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo provide the most nuanced and heartbreaking performances, with Ruffalo creating a character of great warmth and charm in Paul where another less gifted actor might have portrayed him as a more outwardly Machiavellian figure. In Ruffalo's hands I was never really sure of Paul's intentions. He is certainly not blameless for any of the events which follow his meeting the family, but there is a touching sincerity in Ruffalo's eyes which led me to suspect his intentions were basically good. Julianne Moore is as raw and damaged as she has ever been, whilst Mia Wasikowska (best known for her title role in the rubbish 'Alice in Wonderland' earlier this year) is an engaging and thoughtful presence. Josh Hutcherson is effective, but shines less brightly than his co-stars with relatively little to do but play "the slightly obnoxious sulky one".

As well as being an effective family drama, 'The Kids Are All Right' is also enlivened by deftly written dialogue which includes some pretty funny one-liners. As a result it never sags and consistently entertains all the way up to its emotional finale.

'The Kids Are All Right' opened in the UK on October 29th and is rated '15' by the BBFC.

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