Friday, July 30, 2010

The Kids Are All Right: Balancing Act

The Kids Are All Right (2010) • View trailer for The Kids Are All Right
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, nudity, sexual candor and drug references
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.30.10
Buy DVD: The Kids Are All Right • Buy Blu-Ray: The Kids Are All Right [Blu-ray]

Some relationship dramedies derive their humor neither from one-liners nor slapstick merriment, but what could be termed the "squirm factor."

Our chuckles are genuine but nervous; we find somebody's flustered behavior both amusing and embarrassing ... and wincingly familiar. We're constantly waiting for some ax to fall, and that also turns into jittery laughter. The closer the script cuts to the bone  the more these characters become persuasively real to us  the more we laugh at their foolish conduct.
Paul (Mark Ruffalo, right) isn't sure what to expect when he's invited to share a
meal with Nic (Annette Bening, left) and Jules (Julianne Moore), whose children
 he fathered, years ago, thanks to sperm donation. He has only just met the teens
in question -- Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska) -- and shares
their desire that he become more involved with their lives. But long-established
family dynamics are tricky, and the guarded undercurrent present during
this dinner is bound to erupt, sooner or later. 

Mostly because it ain't us making such a blindingly idiotic mess of our lives.

Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right cuts very close to the bone. It's therefore quite funny at times, and also heartbreaking at other moments. Cholodenko's script, co-written with Stuart Blumberg, is achingly, painfully credible; the set-up is reasonable, the dialogue and human responses pretty much as we'd expect from the folks next door, or down the street ... or in our own bedroom.

The film also is anchored by powerful, Academy Award-worthy performances, particularly those from stars Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. They truly inhabit their characters, to the degree that I frankly forgot I was watching actresses in a movie. As happens only rarely, the actresses completely vanish into their roles.

Nic (Bening) and Jules (Moore) have been together for years, and have fallen into patterns that'll be recognized by couples enduring middle-age ennui. They take each other for granted a bit too much, then over-compensate with ostentatious displays of affection ... often while others can watch and therefore validate the gesture.

Nic's the bread-winner: a control freak, somewhat hyper-critical and certainly hyper-sensitive, and prone to a few too many glasses of wine. Jules is loosie-goosie, more inclined to ride the shifting winds of fickle impulse. She probably absorbs more snarky remarks  delivered with waspish precision by Bening  than she dishes out.

They have two children. Joni (Mia Wasikowska), named after singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, is 18 and about to enter college; the events of this film take place during her final summer at home. Laser (Josh Hutcherson), 15, is flirting with lousy company in the form of a truly repugnant bad-news kid named Clay (Eddie Hassell).

Superficially, their family dynamic feels comfortable if mildly pretentious, in that manner of self-satisfied yuppies. Of course wine  rather than beer  is an integral part of this household, and Davis viewers will smile at a passing reference to Fiddlehead.

Nic and Jules put on a good show of contented suburban sophistication, but this atmosphere of tranquility feels oddly vulnerable in spots.

Joni is Nic's daughter, while Laser is Jules' son; both children were conceived via artificial insemination ... from the same donor. Laser has grown curious about the identity of this individual, but he's not old enough to initiate an investigation. Joni, although suspecting that this sleeping dog should be left alone, makes the necessary phone calls. The plan is simple: Meet the guy, satisfy the itch and don't, under any circumstances, tell their moms.

Alas, Paul (Mark Ruffalo) is too endearing, too willing, too amiable, too delighted by this unexpected encounter. Despite herself, Joni is charmed; Laser, ironically, holds back. But that will change.

As does the original plan. Nic and Jules find out, and fancy themselves too sophisticated  too "adult"  to share their worried disapproval with their kids. Instead, the women put on a bold front of acceptance, insisting that Paul join them all for dinner. We sense disaster looming in the wings. Although this contact is important to Joni and Laser  it could be OK; in a perfect world, it should be OK  impulsive, unpredictable human nature seems guaranteed to screw things up.

Matters aren't helped by Paul's earthy, flirty heterosexuality. He's the epitome of alpha male success, augmented by an awareness of his sensitive side. He's single and admired by the women in his orbit; he sleeps with them at will. His current fancy, Tanya (Yaya DaCosta, dripping with sensuality) works as a hostess at the restaurant Paul owns; he also grows his own produce in a nearby garden tended by yet another willing babe.

None of which is to suggest that Paul is a superficial horndog: far from it. Ruffalo is perfect for this role, and he makes Paul intelligent, perceptive and successful by any definition of the word. His cozy, casual presence completely skews the perhaps too precise family dynamic Nic and Jules have spent so many years constructing. The pinball machine goes tilt.

The first shared meal is a masterpiece of uneasy undercurrent and veiled innuendo; every word of Cholodenko and Blumberg's dialogue is pregnant with suggestion. Disapproval looms from Nic's arched eyebrows; Jules rushes too quickly, as is her habit, to smooth waters before they become too troubled. Paul takes everything in, tries to be himself while navigating the obvious mine field. We can't help feeling sorry for him.

Then, inevitably, the first chink in the armor: Paul admits to an indifference about the value of college, points to his own success as proof that higher education isn't essential. This attitude irritates Nic but finds favor with Jules, who has wafted from one potential career to another over the years. Just that easily, a wedge has been inserted into their carefully chiseled relationship.

Time passes. Matters ... get complicated.

Lengthy psychological studies could be conducted, based on how we viewers subsequently take sides: which character(s) we find sympathetic, which we find fault with. At first blush, Jules is easier to like; Moore makes her warm, open and more sensitive to another person's feelings. She's also visibly vulnerable; Moore's eyes show real pain when some of Nic's more brittle comments land telling blows.

Nic, in contrast, is uptight and short-tempered: quick to assume the worst. She may be approaching alcoholism. Bening's face is forever set in a guarded mask, her mouth twitching toward censure. We suspect, of these two women, that Nic always has been the most defensive about their lesbian relationship: the one forever wincing at the prospect of a stray  or deliberate  critical remark from some hateful stranger.

We assume that Nic is more politically aware, and that Jules probably doesn't vote. But people can fool us, and Cholodenko and Blumberg don't make it that easy. Indeed, as this story progresses, we'll likely switch allegiances more than once. Both Bening and Moore have killer scenes of emotional crisis, but Bening's is the most impressive: Hers is presented without dialogue. It's all in what we read in Bening's face, which speaks  shrieks  volumes.

Wasikowska, our most recent Alice in Tim Burton's Wonderland, makes Joni engagingly complicated. The girl teeters at the verge of adulthood and emancipation, but she's not quite ready to take the leap. She's protective of her family, and perhaps is the best of these four, when it comes to looking out for everybody. We gradually realize that Wasikowska's Joni is the stable one; it's an impressively subtle, quietly layered performance.

Hutcherson, alas, isn't quite in everybody else's league. We never quite get a fix on Laser, although in fairness the script doesn't give him as much ammunition. We can't help wondering what his school life is like, on all the sports teams where we're told he excels; are his jock friends really so accepting of this guy with two mothers? That seems unlikely, but Cholodenko's film doesn't go there. That may be wise, since it would change the story dynamic, but we're left with questions nonetheless.

Additionally  and irritatingly, in a film where so much is done well  the music is clumsy and completely wrong in almost every scene. Carter Burwell, Nathan Larson and Craig Wedren share the credit (or blame); whether underscore or a folk/rock ballad heard as source music, the result too often pulls us out of the action.

Happily, that's not enough to sabotage such a compelling film. The Kids Are All Right is beguiling in its own right, but it's also intriguing to contemplate  as was suggested to me by a fellow film fan  how the character interactions and plot beats would change if Annette Bening's Nic were replaced by, say, Colin Firth's impotent Nick.

Granted, some of this story's tension is specific to a same-sex relationship. But in many other important ways, this film is gender-neutral, no doubt deliberately so. That opens a fascinating window into where we are right now, in 21st century America.

Which makes Cholodenko's film entertaining and a learning experience.

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