Lisa Cholodenko's wonderful "The Kids Are All Right" is about many things, but at its heart it's about a girl who's ready to fly away from her family's cozy L.A. nest.
Eighteen-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska of “Alice in Wonderland”), her pale face framed by sheets of hair that you want to brush away, loves her two moms, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), but she’s easily irritated by them.
A recent high-school graduate, she’s beginning to assert her independence, and does so in an unusual way: At the urging of her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson), she contacts Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the biological father/sperm donor whom the two kids have never met. That’s the beauty of Cholodenko’s film: It’s not about Joni coming to terms with her gay parents, but with her straight nonparent.
Her family is, refreshingly, presented with utter casualness – they are, in nearly all respects, just like any other family, and probably happier than most. Joni’s irked that she’s being urged to write thank-you notes; Laser hangs out with friends who might be a bad influence; Nic, a stressed-out physician, is self-medicating a little heavily with red wine; Jules, the floaty stay-at-home parent, worries about what she’ll do as the kids leave the fold. But all clearly adore each other.
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Along comes Paul, like a laid-back cyclone, and suddenly everything is different – for a little while. Ruffalo, dialing up his sleepy charm to an almost unbearably adorable level, plays Paul as a guy not so much afraid of commitment as indifferent to it.
He’s intrigued by the kids and their moms and he enjoys chatting with them about his locavore restaurant and ideas about life, but clearly he hasn’t thought this relationship out too much. Nic is wary, Jules less so, and two uneasy triangles are formed.
The acting in this film is so good, across the board, that it feels like we’re watching a real family going through drama (and comedy) over a summer before its eldest child leaves for college.
Bening and Moore effortlessly make us believe that they’re a long-in-love couple – and that, whatever happens, the strong unit they’ve created will survive.
Ruffalo has a reckless wistfulness that’s endearing, and Hutcherson captures that spidery uncertainty of 15-year-old boys. But it’s Wasikowska’s gently resolute expression that stays with us at the end as she takes her first steps toward grown-up life, secure that she is greatly loved.
'THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT'
* * * *
Cast: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson, Yaya DaCosta
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Running time: 1:46
Rating: R; strong sexual content, nudity, language and teen drug and alcohol use.