Tales from the sperm donor frontier
by Jason Blair
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT: Directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Written by Stuart Bloomberg and Cholodenko. Cinematography, Igor Jadue-Lillo. Music, Nathan Larson and Craig Wedren. Starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson. Focus Features, 2010. R. 134 minutes.
Much has been made of the fact that Lisa Cholodenko, the writer and director of The Kids Are All Right, postponed the film when she became pregnant by a sperm donor. Such inquiries are inevitable — after all, Cholodenko’s film is about a lesbian couple and their sperm donor — as if the discovery of real-world connections might enhance our experience of the film. But that’s not the case with The Kids Are All Right, a universally resonant film that is a “gay” movie in the same way Animal Farm is about animals. Claiming Kids for this or that group only distorts the film’s powers, which are considerable. Gay families are a starting point for Cholodenko, who after creating a credible family situation tests its durability by introducing a vexing dilemma.
The dilemma in Kids is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a smoldering, easygoing organic farmer and restaurateur living in Los Angeles. Almost 20 years ago, Paul was selected anonymously as a sperm donor by Nic (Annette Bening), now an uptight OB-GYN, and Jules (Julianne Moore), her free-spirited partner. The result was Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), half-siblings who refer to their parents as the “Momses.” Prompted by Laser, who could use some male bonding, Joni contacts Paul, whose aura of cool evaporates. Their phone conversation, in which Paul struggles to grasp Joni’s family dynamic, ends with Paul saying “I love lesbians!” and agreeing to meet the kids at his restaurant. Nic, to whose control the family long ago succumbed, is threatened by this unexpected force, while Jules suggests they might all have dinner and be done with it.
The dinner is a revelation, and not merely because it’s immediately clear where the connections are or are not. Jules and Paul agree about virtually everything, while Nic struggles to hide her disappointment in Paul’s self-consciously alternative lifestyle. Bening’s ability is on spectacular display. Once again, the actress is a master of hidden disappointments, of control betrayed by a wisp of intonation or the slightest flick of her head. Bening’s Nic is cagey; inside the cage, a world of hidden threats lays in wait. Paul is the opposite, a ruminative, perennially bemused sexual being who’s always chewing something very casually, especially when he’s not chewing anything. By a process of gradual integration, Paul overwhelms and destabilizes Nic and Jules’s family — and, at times, the film.
If Kids is Bening’s best work in years, it is also a welcome return for Mark Ruffalo, who hasn’t been this effortless since You Can Count on Me. The greater the pain, the wider the smile for Ruffalo’s Paul — but to view him as a male intruding on lesbian splendor is to misunderstand the film. This isn’t just a film about lesbians in America. This is a film about modern families in America. Paul is a wave that capsizes a structure that may not have been firmly anchored to begin with. While Kids is calculated and to some extent conventional in its story arc, it is also a finely observed, perfectly performed dramatic comedy about modern family dynamics, in particular how we express anger and receive criticism and judgment. A little bit American Beauty, a little bit The Ice Storm — if a little bit tidier than either — The Kids Are All Right contains the insight of great fiction, the levity of farce and the loosely wired logic of a soap opera.