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Philly2Philly reviews 'The Kids Are All Right'

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The Kids Are All Rightthe little indie that could, is notable for several reasons. Most importantly,The Kids Are All Right. Photo courtesy of Focus Features. it’s a dramedy aiming for mainstream crossover centered around a lesbian couple trying to raise a family in the suburbs of California. It also features quite a star studded cast for such independent stock, resulting in another intriguing factor. Lastly, it was showered with praise at Sundance, which is why this low budget film is slowly crawling it’s way into multiplexes across the globe this summer.

Despite all the hype, The Kids Are All Right is basically standard fare, with a lesbian twist and outstanding performances. The indie/mainstream fusion always provides some edge, but other than that, there isn’t much here that stands out plot wise. This is a film sold on the strength of it characters and the expert level of acting on hand.

The film begins with the portrait of a perfect suburban family. Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) have two very well rounded children that are on the brink of adulthood, Joni is busy preparing for college, trying to enjoy her last summer at home. Meanwhile, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is dealing with the teenage pangs of self discovery and coming into his own. Jules and Nic are seen as the binding here, both presences strong and stable like a glue that holds everything together and keeps the family grounded.

Of course, if everything was perfect, there would be no movie, The storm cloud arrives in the form of Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a free spirit who dropped out of college and since had become an organic food farmer. He is contacted by both Joni and Laser because they investigate and find he is actually their father, or in this case the man who donated sperm to their mothers many years ago. The three meet in a wonderfully awkward, raw scene at Paul’s place of work, and soon both are itching to get to know the mystery man better.

When Jules and Nic get wind of the situation, emotions are inconsistent to be sure. Though both want their children to have the opportunity to explore their biological origins, they worry that Paul may become too much of an influence and start to take the kids away from the life that has been built around them for so many years. Things become even more complicated when Jules takes a job renovating Paul’s garden and the two form an unexpected attraction to each other.

The Kids Are All Right does have a plot turn that left a bad taste in this reviewer’s mouth. The decision to explore an attraction between Jules and Paul does feel a tad soap operaish, and also somewhat disrespectful to the lesbian lifestyle in general, given the erratic, graphic behavior that is shown. Director Lisa Cholodenko  is clearly trying to point out that human sexuality is complex, and that nothing is black and white in that regard. However, the whole arc feels unnecessary, inserted to appease mainstream audiences, and not terribly clever to boot. One can see the wheels turning before the development occurs, and one wishes the writer/director had been smart enough to explore another dynamic after the arrival of Paul, but to no avail.

Elsewhere, however, the movie is lifted above the generics by those dynamite performances. Moore, as the free spirited partner who can’t seem to find success she can call her own, is a sweet and good natured screen personality, even though her character is highly flawed. Mia Wasikowska as 18 year-old Joni is also exceptional, displaying vulnerability and confusion at crucial points. Ruffalo’s character is a mess of a human being, but he has never been more charming or oozed more sex appeal than he does here. Finally, Bening is Oscar worthy. Her Nic is an obsessive, controlling personality that still remains endearing as she attempts to steer her family in the right direction. The complexity Bening brings to her character is nothing short of exceptional.

The Kids Are All Right has already managed to generate decent returns at the box office due to halo of positive buzz that has been hanging over the film since Sundance. This slice of anti-Norman Rockwell family life is standard enough to appeal to a wide audience, while the sexually frank nature of the film as well as the central lesbian theme is sure to keep it somewhat grounded in independent territory. The result is a movie that isn’t exceptional in either category, but still a pleasant, heartwarming, and superbly acted experience.

Contact Jim Teti at jteti@philly2philly.com

Photos: Focus Features