In the sunny world of Los Angeles, a “normal” family discovers how dysfunctional they really are in The Kids Are All Right. You may have noticed the word normal in quotes and you might be aware from the marketing that the family of note is not your typical household. The parents of the titular kids are two married lesbians. Annette Bening is the breadwinner Nic, an uptight and controlling wine-swiller, and Julianne Moore is the mercurial and loopy Jules. At first, the film treats this information as nothing special. Yes these kids, college bound Joni and the inscrutable Laser, have two moms, but that doesn’t make them different. Joni is naive around boys, and Laser… well Laser doesn’t have a clue, like most 15-year old boys. Jules and Nic bicker, like any married couple, about the mundane, cleaning up hair in the drain, or the mid-life crisis of choosing a new career. Which is to say, the movie wants us to the view this family and this marriage as ordinary. That is, until it needs us not to, and the plot mechanics of the second half threaten to derail what was a pleasant afternoon at the movies.
The main thrust of the movie kicks into gear when the kids, mostly out of curiosity, track down their donor Dad. He turns out to be the charming, laid back Mark Ruffalo (a welcome addition to any film). A lot of awkward conversations and pseudo-hugs occur as the characters go about getting to know each other, figuring out where they fit in each others lives, if at all. This is where the movie is at its best. Bening, Moore, and Ruffalo are terrific, each one given ample opportunity to create a three-dimensional character, reacting to an unusual circumstance in believable ways. Bening is guarded and frustrated by this new person in her life. She can’t control it and feels vulnerable, with reason. Moore falls victim to Ruffalo’s easy-going ways and seizes the moment to vent whatever pent-up marital aggression that has been building. Ruffalo plays a variation of his You Can Count on Me character. He is a relative success, despite his lack of education or discernible life goal. He is therefore likable and “interesting.” These early scenes, mostly revolving around a dinner table, are breezy, fun and have a natural humor to them.
Unfortunately, the film introduces a plot point that rubbed me the wrong way for a variety of reasons. What I speak of is hinted at in the trailers, but I will still warn of MILD SPOILERS AHEAD. In the second half, Moore and Ruffalo have an affair and the rest of the movie is dedicated and bogged down by this turn of events. This simply did not work for me. I recognize why Moore might feel some attraction for this new found father figure and why she might act out by sleeping with him, but it still feels wrong. Moore’s character is a devoted, monogamous lesbian, and has been for at least 20 years. The movie does not hint that maybe she liked or tried guys at one point, so there’s no reason to assume she would. It felt as likely to happen as me cheating on my own wife with a dude, which is to say, never. But let’s just pretend that people switch sexual orientation on a whim all the time… okay… well, then the cheating story line came off as unnecessary. The introduction of Ruffalo’s character into the lives of this family is intrinsically interesting without muddying it with a garbage affair plot.
END SPOILER. The problematic affair also short-changes any character development of the kids. They’re there, and they react to the shenanigans involving their elders, but we never get a real sense of how it is affecting them or what they’re going through, even before “dad” shows up. I also object to an entire scene explaining where Joni got her name but not a word is mentioned as to why Laser is called Laser! Small gripe, but it sure does nag at me.
The movie is a pleasant and interesting enough look at family with 3 typically great performances from its leads. Bening and Ruffalo bravely play their opposing parts, unlikable (Bening) and likable (Ruffalo) even though by the end it is clear that we’ve misplaced our allegiances. Moore, for her part, navigates between them as honestly as she knows how. The film’s initial freshness eventually gives way to the all too familiar, squandering any chance at subtly examining what makes the american family tick (Especially the kind that has two moms and goes to Bonnaroo together while driving their hybrid).