July 29, 2010 | by David J. Hoffman
This movie is all right

You may wince a little, and weep a lot, as you also laugh out loud at this hilarious yet heart-rending story of a family and the trials and troubles of marriage.

“The Kids Are All Right,” stars the incomparable Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a lesbian couple wedded to each other in every sense but without a marriage license to prove it, for 20 years.

And yet it is marriage rendered so utterly commonplace and completely real in its complexities and its triumph of hope over experience, which is what any marriage must ultimately be. As such, it should put to rest, to the extent any film ever can, the debate over whether gay marriages have the right to exist alongside straight ones — and be just as wonderful or just as miserable. For these lesbians the real twist is that their marriage is so completely conventional they could be straight.

For in this film it’s simply one take on the modern family, in a tale of the “new normal” told with droll accuracy about everything from mid-life crisis, to adulterous temptation, to teenage angst, to coming-of-age. We meet uptight doctor Nic (Bening), in a short, blunt, butch haircut, who clearly is the type-A breadwinner and “wears the pants” in this family, but is a compulsive drinker, and Jules (Moore), the stay-at-home mom who gave up her career for a sort of ditzy and “emo” femininity. Their lives of conventional affluence — troubled however by signs of growing apart — take place in their comfortable home in the Los Angeles hillside.

Their two kids, 18-year-old, college-bound Joni (Mia Wasikowski), named for Joni Mitchell, and 15-year-old and sweet-natured Laser (Josh Hutcherson), skateboarding on the edge of delinquency, are — or soon will be — all right. It’s their parents (these two kids call them “the Momses”) that may not be all right. Even the occasional sexual spice of watching gay male porn together can’t season the staleness of their sex lives, though their vibrators are going into overdrive

This unease together becomes especially true when an “intruder” enters this family dynamic, already teetering dangerously into chaos, as Laser convinces his older sister that they must track down and discover their “donor dad,” the anonymous sperm donor from whose artificial insemination each of “the Momses” gave them birth.

The donor is an organic restaurateur and shambling bachelor Paul, played with feckless charm as a man-child with roguish appeal by skilled actor Mark Ruffalo.

In this way “The Kids Are All Right” becomes a comedy in the Shakespearean sense. A strict social order is upset and reshaped by the clash with an alternative lifestyle — the straight world whose sexual allure proves to be a flame for the moth flight path of Jules. In fact, Paul’s backyard and farm become an alternative garden drawing newbie landscape designer Jules seeing what she calls its “fecund” potential, and soon she and Paul are copulating like newlywed rabbits. Eventually, of course, order must be restored, but only after much “sturm und drang” between Nic and Jules.

Lesbian writer and co-director Lisa Cholodenko, together with her co-writer Stuart Blumberg, reportedly wrote many drafts of the script beginning in late 2004, and in 2006 she and her partner used a sperm donor to “mother” a son, now four years old, and Blumberg himself had been a sperm donor when he was in college.

Once postproduction was completed they rushed to get the film entered last year at the Sundance Film Festival where it became one of the breakout hits. Based on its receipts since its opening earlier this month, the film will be Cholodenko’s first full-fledged box office hit.

“I love lesbians!” Paul enthuses when he first hears about his new “family” but the two Momses view Paul with caution (though Jules later switches sides), not because he is straight, or even because he is a man, but because having dropped out of college he doesn’t appear to them as good role-model material.

“You’re a fucking interloper,” Nic tells him near the end of the movie. “You want a family? Go make your own!” How does it all end? Is order restored?

The answers are part of the sizable satisfactions of this first-rate, even Oscar-quality film. See it wondering and be amazed when you find out.

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