The titular kids of director Lisa Cholodenko's latest film love their moms, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore). But now that their daughter, Joni has turned eighteen, their son, Laser, wants Joni to do what he legally can't: contact the sperm clinic and find the donor who fathered them.
Enter Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a restaurateur whose youthful folly has literally come calling, offering a glimpse at the family he never raised. For Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), it's a chance to step away from their exceedingly maternal home life. For Jules, he's an unlikely partner to support her impulsive ways. For Nic, he's a swaggering indication of how much control she's about to lose as her children prepare to leave the nest.
The implications of the title are many ' the kids were correct to explore their options, as they're bound (and ostensibly encouraged) to, and the kids are well adjusted under the care of a gay couple. As a lesbian who herself conceived a child by way of sperm donor, Cholodenko doesn't push or preach the issue. Instead, she allows the family dynamic to feasibly develop and deteriorate as it might when someone who's both a critical component, and yet a complete stranger, is introduced.
Cholodenko establishes an easygoing mood early on ' a gentle soundtrack, warm and loose cinematography by Igor Jadue-Lillo ' enough so that the eventual fuel for friction doesn't seem nearly as contrived as it would in any other so-called Sundance sensation. Nic and Jules may talk in terms of 'coming to one's plane of consciousness,â?� but they never feel like phony granola stereotypes; Nic even rails against Jules' attempts to get her to buy organic and compost everything.
The ensemble is uniformly impressive at bringing a similar sense of ease to their performances. Nic is protective to a fault, a stubborn personality well within Bening's wheelhouse (and not as overwrought as her recent turn in Mother and Child). Jules is just the opposite, of course, and Moore lends her an air of restlessness to surpass a trite, free-spirit label. When one of them gets to deliver a Big Emotional Speech near the end, it feels like a character sincerely trying to level with her loved ones rather than an actress sincerely trying to garner awards attention.
Ruffalo is in the trickiest territory, full of regret and hope in the absence of anything resembling responsibility; a figure that will either bring this family closer together than ever or tear them apart. And while the grown-ups are at the forefront, Wasikowska and Hutcherson never feel as if they're playing at teen angst and uncertainty.
Much of the characters' qualities speak to the appeal of Cholodenko's film. The Kids Are All Right is messy without being rambling, usually funny without feeling scripted, sometimes sad without seeming sappy. It's at turns hopeful and naÃ¯ve and sorry and true. In other words, it's a lot like life.