I feel it’s relevant to mention at the top of this review how frequently my local multiplex leaves the doors open to its screens, allowing noise from whatever film is playing to filter out into the foyer. In what could have been a scene from a movie itself, I walked right past ajar screenings of Burke & Hare and the latest Saw film on my way in to see The Kids Are All Right. I duly closed the door behind me.
As something of an anomaly in this past Friday’s largely Halloween-centric releases, The Kids Are All Right is gathering crazy Oscar buzz. Of course it is! It’s of a type. It’s an indie movie with drama, comedy and prestige in the way of its cast and script. It’s basically Little Miss Sunshine 2010 to awards analysts.
It’s oh so modern, too. It’s about Jules and Nic, a lesbian couple who are happily married with two kids. The older kid, Joni, has just turned 18, and the film covers her last summer living at home before decamping to college, coinciding with something of a rough patch in her mothers’ relationship.
To younger sibling Laser, his sister’s coming of age is a means by which he can satisfy the need to get in touch with the sperm donor who fathered them. Jules and Nic each gave birth using semen from the same inglorious baster, filled, in this case, by organic restaurateur Paul.
In a way, it’s an oddly seductive film. I wasn’t particularly charmed by it at all until it really got going and it reveals itself to comprise a series of character portraits once writer-director Lisa Cholodenko sets up all of the pieces. Once I got a good enough sense of the film, I found myself liking it a lot more than I initially had.
For one thing, the awards season buzz about the cast is totally justifiable. It’s been suggested that there’ll be some argument over who is the lead actress and who is the supporting actress, between Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. I’d be very surprised if one or both of them aren’t recognised in the acting categories, because they’re both at the top of their game in this.
Even aside from their believable relationship, they adjust to the jostling state of play in Cholodenko’s script extraordinarily well. Without a traditional, conservative father figure in the family, the pair of them oscillate as characters. Bening’s Nic is the breadwinner, placed at the head of the table in most dinner scenes, but she’s also the slightly hectoring motherly figure. Moore makes Jules both the stay at home housewife and the affable dad figure.
In some ways, I think this is a problem with the script, even if the leads do carry it off excellently. It’s a very politically correct move, to try and put this family to the audience through the prism of the dysfunctional American family. They’re lesbians, not aliens. If the film had trusted the audience with the intelligence to interpret a slightly unorthodox home situation for themselves, I’d like it more.
The waters are muddied further by the eventual significance of Paul, played by Mark Ruffalo. He starts out as a typical and likeable beta male, albeit one who beds many women all the time, but somehow transforms into the arsehole of the piece once the plot starts moving.
Elsewhere, Josh Hutcherson is poorly served as the improbably monikered Laser. He’s given some interesting stuff in the early part of the film that just disappears to make room for more pressing plot matters at around the halfway point. Given how his only other main role is as the impetus for Joni to get in touch with Paul, he appears somewhat underused.
I’m certainly not saying that, by Cholodenko’s failure to fulfil her male characters, this film is chauvinistic, because it’s clearly not. What I would say is that these characters are poorly served, and that they just happen to be the lead males in the film. One particular plot turn involving Paul, although surprising, just reminded me of a plot that was executed more sensitively and with more panache by Kevin Smith, when he made Chasing Amy.
On the positive side, it’s very nicely directed on the whole. Even with its obvious cosmetic touches, it never feels less than natural. The indie dramedy tropes, like the too cool for the room soundtrack and an actual Joni Mitchell sing-along at the dining table, are counter-balanced by the way the dialogue is delivered, and the way scenes are edited.
There are actual pauses for breath in which characters might think in the way that actual human beings do, rather than just firing dialogue back and forth as if they’d read it from some sort of script, or something. This benefits Mark Ruffalo the most, at least in the parts where you’re supposed to like him. In that part of the film, Paul’s foot is never far from his mouth, and Ruffalo pitches the awkward pauses perfectly.
Additionally, the scenes with Joni and her friend Sasha, played by Mia Wasikowska and Zosia Mamet respectively, feel very close to teenage life. This is especially well done when you consider that Sasha is exactly the kind of pointless BFF stereotype that only exists in this kind of film, and earns extra points for allowing Wasikowska to emote after her sober turn in Alice In Wonderland.
It adheres so closely to the indie dramedy playbook that I’m sure it can join some kind of universal drinking game for that sub-genre, with my only addition being ‘finish your drink whenever a character loses an argument and says “Fuck you” to the victor’. Try it and see how sozzled you get at the end of the second act.
Moving past the ‘that time of the year’ horror flicks and into the awards season, The Kids Are All Right is just about worthy of the acclaim. As much as its foibles make it human, they also brought the film down, in my estimation. I think it’s an ultra-liberal film that plays it safe with the potentially tricky subject matter, but it might just get away with blinkering the Academy voters with its stellar performances to secure a place on the shortlist for Best Picture come February.
Not because it’s one of the best films of the year, mind, but because it’s the best film of its type this year, and there was a Little Miss Sunshine slot reserved even before there were ten spaces to be filled.
All the same, there’s been a weird influx of artificial insemination comedies this year, between this, The Back-Up Plan and The Switch, so if ‘2010 artificial insemination comedy’ is its type, then The Kids Are All Right is the only one I deem worthy of watching.