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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews The Kids Are All Right

January 27th, 2011
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In Lisa Cholodenko’s film The Kids Are All Right, we meet Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), a loving lesbian couple who have been raising two kids together: Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson).  Their lives aren’t perfect, but over-all it’s a stable, happy family unit.  But when Laser convinces Joni to help him find their biological father (though Nic gave birth to Joni and Jules gave birth to Laser, they share the same sperm donor), the foundations of the family are shaken.

I was really quite taken with this film.  I think it’s an interesting story filled with complex, human characters, and all of the lead actors give terrific performances.  I was ultimately dissatisfied with where the narrative wound up (more on that later), which lessens the film’s total impact slightly for me, but it’s still a very solid, enjoyable, aimed-at-adults movie.

I’ve been complaining a lot recently about films with one-dimensional characters.  I don’t mind films having heroes and villains, and likable and unlikable characters.  I simply tend to prefer films where the characters aren’t completely black and white.  (Ex. This father is a TOTAL JERK with no redeeming qualities.)  So major props to writer/director Ms. Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg for crafting a story filled with truly human characters.  No one in The Kids Are All Right is a total saint.  The characters have positive qualities and some negative ones as well.  Likable characters make some bad decisions.  It’s thrillingly refreshing.

This top-notch material is elevated by a wonderful cast.  Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are both phenomenal as Nic and Jules.  These characters felt completely REAL to me, and their relationship felt equally honest.  It’s sweet and messy and complicated and feels really true.  I like that we get to see the two sharing some tender moments, as well as the times when they seem completely distant from one another.

Equally wonderful are the two kids.  Mia Wasikowska was one of the few good things in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (read my review here), and it’s delightful to see her looking and acting like a real human being without all of that accompanying Tim Burton weirdness.  Ms. Wasikowska is able to bring to life Joni’s innocence, as well as to her growing temptation to leave her childhood behind and step into the trappings of an adult.  Josh Hutcherson is also strong as her brother Laser (pronounced Lazer).  He’s already begun to push at the boundaries of conformity and acceptable behavior, but Mr. Hutcherson keeps reminding us of Laser’s good-natured side as well (a product, one can assume, of the strong upbringing he’s received from his two moms).

Then there is Paul (Mark Ruffalo).  I’m a big fan of Mr. Ruffalo’s work and he turns in another interesting performance here, crafting a wonderfully idiosyncratic and complex character in Paul.  Ultimately I have a lot more sympathy for Paul than it seems the filmmakers do, and it’s in where his narrative winds up that I have my biggest problems with the film.  (Some SPOILERS ahead, my friends, so beware.)

I was left quite unsettled by the way that Paul basically winds up excommunicated from the family.  I think that’s a terrible thing to do to him, and I object to the idea that the family cannot function if he has any contact with them.  Is Paul perfect?  Absolutely not, far from it.  He makes some selfish, bone-head decisions.  But I can understand why he makes those decisions.  He’s overwhelmed by the emotions of being a part of a family for the first time, and those feelings go to his head.  His mistakes come from that source, and while that is bad, it doesn’t seem to me like that makes him a total scoundrel.  Remember that it was Joni and Laser who reached out to him at the start of the film, and not the other way around.  They asked HIM to be involved in their lives.  To then yank that away from him at the end of the film seems terribly cruel.

(You could argue to me that that was the filmmakers’ intent — that they wanted the audience to be left unsettled by this almost-tragic ending to the story.  But I don’t think that’s the case.  While The Kids Are All Right has some very serious content in it, and some very emotional, wrenching scenes, there’s also a lightness and joy to the film — which is part of what makes it, for the most part, such a compelling movie.  I don’t think the filmmakers set out to make a tragedy with this film.  I don’t think the ending was intended to be a dour ending.  It’s not a totally happy ending, that’s for sure — and again, that is to the filmmakers’ credit, for avoiding a simplistic Hollywood happy ending — but overall I think the filmmakers want us to be happy that the family remains united at the conclusion of the story, not unhappy that Paul has been excluded.  But I felt bad for Paul, dammit!!)

Does the ending ruin the film for me?  Certainly not.  What’s great about the film remains great, and I do enjoy a film that leaves one with a lot to think about and to talk about.  I’m glad to have caught up with this film during my end-of-the-year catch-up session.

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