It’s been a bad summer. I keep saying that, mostly because it’s true. It’s been overrun by loud, obnoxious studio movies that appeal to little kids (‘Marmaduke,’ ‘Shrek Forever After’) or adolescent boys (‘The A-Team,’ ‘Grown Ups’). The studios know this, and every year they place their bets on a crowd-pleasing indie, one that has preferably taken home the audience award at either Sundance or Tribeca. These are usually genial, mediocre little movies like ‘(500) Days of Summer’ or ‘The Wackness’ or ‘Little Miss Sunshine.’ This year’s entry in the “little indie that could” derby is Lisa Cholodenko’s ‘The Kids Are All Right.’ The big difference between this movie and those others is that this one is really, really good.
The story, as much as there is one, is simple, straightforward, and affecting: Julianne Moore and Annette Bening are lesbian parents who have given birth to two children (Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska) from the same sperm donor. At the time of Wasikowska’s 18th birthday, right before she goes off to college, Hutcherson prods her into seeking out the identity of their donor. Who is it, you ask? Why, none other than Mark Ruffalo! Ruffalo, a kind of rambling hippie who runs a chic restaurant in Los Angeles, starts to take a role in his kids’ lives. This sets their loving lesbian parents off in a number of ways, before the ultimate themes of reconciliation and acceptance make themselves known.
If you’re looking for drama, or tension, or any of the hallmarks of what this summer has hereto been made up of (loud things crashing into other loud things, for example), then you’re going to be sorely disappointed. There’s some heartbreak and some misunderstanding; neither of those plot points I want to divulge in this review. Mostly, the movie is a keenly observant study of human foibles, of the kind of emotional bonds that keep us together and drive us apart. It’s impeccably acted, with the second great performance from Annette Bening this summer. (The other was the little-seen drama ‘Mother and Child’). And Ruffalo, man oh man, that guy is a genius. He is genuinely hilarious in every scene he’s in, but also belays a sophistication that, on the outset, isn’t quite noticeable during the narrative. Once the movie wraps up, you really appreciate it.
Unlike ‘The Wackness‘ or ‘(500) Days of Summer‘ or any of those trite, cloying “indie” comedies, ‘The Kids Are All Right’ feels real. It seems to be coming from a genuinely heartfelt place. Co-writer/director Lisa Cholodenko is a lesbian who has had children via sperm donation. You get the sense that Cholodenko and her co-screenwriter Stuart Blumberg know the all the inherently hilarious and heartbreaking moments that come along with that situation. There’s so much depth to each and every character, and the situations they find themselves in, that is far removed from the hipper-than-thou indie posturing of something like ‘Little Miss Sunshine.’
Is the movie perfect? Of course not. Some of the subplots get waylaid in favor of the main arc. During the halfway point the kids get a little lost. And at 134 minutes it’s at least ten minutes too long. But the movie is so refreshing, so wonderfully shot and directed and acted, that any and all complaints go out the window. You can’t help but feel rejuvenated, ready to sit through another few weeks of Hollywood tedium. (‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice,’ you say? Oh dear.)
This is an R-rated movie, but one that’s not too tough, either emotionally or content-wise. It’s a lovely little movie and one that I wouldn’t hesitate recommending to anyone, even someone’s grandmother. It really is one of the year’s very best films, and the heart of the movie is universal. If you’re looking to duck out of the heat for a couple of hours and check your brain (and heart) at the door, then this probably isn’t for you. But if you’re looking for something that’s slightly more adventurous, yet really entertaining, don’t think twice: Go see ‘The Kids Are All Right.’ You won’t regret it.