Author’s note: Finding the motivation to write in my life is a bit difficult right now, but when you see a film like “The Kids Are All Right,” the motivation finds you.
For the past five years, the actress has been one of the most important assets in modern cinema. From Helen Mirren in “The Queen” to Sally Hawkins in “Happy-Go-Lucky” to Anne Hathaway in “Rachel Getting Married” to Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep in just about anything, the power of the performance has been the leading factor in the emotional and dynamic results of the finished film. On DVD next Tuesday, writer/director Lisa Cholodenko’s wonderful independent dramatic comedy is a must see for those with the ability to witness great acting. The film is overshadowed by its “quirky indie” marketing campaign, but like most modern independent hits the substance of the film expunges the saccharine of its publicity.
A contemporary family, led by its two lesbian partners Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) and anchored by their two children Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), are shaken up when Joni – having just turned eighteen – makes the call to the sperm donor of both she and her brother. Paul (Mark Ruffalo), an easy going restaurateur, enters their lives to the chagrin of both parents. As he begins to connect with the children he never knew he had, the life of the old family becomes anew. Nic, intellectual and generally a bit uptight, becomes worse in terms of jealousy – especially after her much more carefree partner and children all fall for Paul. The emotional ties the bind are pulled to their ends when Jules, feeling unappreciated and attracted to this new man, begins a sexual relationship with Paul.
The film is deceptively simple in terms of story but becomes intensely complex when this major beat occurs. Under Cholodenko’s direction – and following her incredibly authentic script – the actors never resort to overemphasis. Their pain feels real. Since this is not a realist film, it is up to Bening, Moore, Wasikowska, Hutcherson and Ruffalo to achieve deep human emotion without sentimentalizing the script. Needless to say, all five accomplish this task without any trouble – especially Bening.
Nominated twice for an Academy Award, this should be her year. Bening plays Nic, a very restless woman on the verge of a breakdown, but with a big heart. It would be very easy to find Nic annoying but Bening gives Nic a heartbreaking compassion that works through the entire film. Natalie Portman will be the one to beat this year for her supposed visionary performance in Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” but this is one of those few times in which an actress who is quite due for an award should win – not just because she’s due but because the performance deserves the trophy. Even if she never wins, as long as Bening keeps taking roles like Nic, we should be just as happy.
The rest of the cast is spectacular. Moore’s Jules is free-spirited. After the affair, her inability to hide her feelings destroys her, but Moore plays the character with an essence only a expert actress could pick up on. Having lived with Nic for so long, Jules has become something of an informed noncomformist. While a complete free spirit would not necessarily have the intellectual means of explaining her situation, Jules (after a lot of introspective thought) is able to talk to her family in an honest and illuminated way. Moore is fantastic here – definitely one of her best roles, making up for that horrible guest spot on “30 Rock” in which she achieved what can only be called the worst fake Boston accent of all time.
Wasikowksa and Hutcherson play the kids and aren’t just “All Right” or just alright – they too are downright overwhelmingly impressive. They play each of their characters as shadows of their respective parents. Wasikowska (who underwhelmed in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” but atoned with this film) plays Joni, somewhat cerebral like her biological mother Nic and Hutcherson portrays Laser (you get used to hearing it in the film, even though it’s one of the most ridiculous names ever) somewhat freely and curious like Jules.
Ruffalo’s at his best here – and goes through the bigger changes in the film. Starting out pretty informal and laid back to committed and fatherly to absolutely heartbroken – his performance may go unnoticed by many due to the ambiguity of his exit in the film. However, this should not be taken fully into consideration. Paul introduces his weird personality and humor into the lives of these crunchy Californians in a way that they may consciously forget but will stay with all of them – most especially the impressionable Laser. Ruffalo is endearingly lovable as Paul and worthy of merit in his role.
While Bening’s performance is essential to the film, it is truly an ensemble’s film – and not just between the actors. “The Kids Are All Right” is a superb piece of modern independent filmmaking from Cholodenko’s moving script to the brilliant cinematography by Igor Jadue-Lillo and Jeffrey Werner’s complimentary editing – the film nears consummate in its design and presentation. Don’t let the film’s own advertising get in the way of seeing this film – it’s one of the best of the year.