Wednesday, July 28, 2010
The Kids Are All Right - and Eating Well Too
(To avoid any sort of SPOILER, skip the first paragraph and proceed.)
We’ve seen this before. The wife or husband suspects that spouse has been unfaithful. That dawning realization comes as a sock in the belly. It’s no different for Nic, a female doctor, when she realizes that her female partner has been sleeping with someone else. This is the film’s most masterful moment. Close up on Nic (Annette Bening). Motion slows. Sound fades. She scrutinizes her partner, Jules (Julianne Moore). She is alienated by what has happened, trapped in a small space in hell, and you can practically hear her anguished thoughts.
In The Kids Are All Right, the depiction of a family that has two Moms and two children, each child conceived by means of artificial insemination by one of the Moms, this moment transcends differences and shows us how hard it is to be a parent and spouse, no matter your sex, no matter the sex of your partner. It is a universal moment. And there are other universal moments like that from other points of view. The amazingly talented Mia Wasikowska plays Joni, an 18-year-old girl poised between high school and college, and she is that character in body posture and facial expressions during every second of her time on screen. In one brilliantly touching shot, her lower lip trembling so convincingly, she watches Moms and brother, Laser, (Josh Hutcherson) drive away after dropping her off at college, and we can see her poised between her childhood and a new phase in her life.
Throughout the film, director Lisa Cholodenko nearly always gets the best out of her five key performers – and they work to present slices of life that portray the warmth, confusion, and hurt of parenthood, love, growing up, and establishing your identity. Wasikowska stands out in her depiction of a budding young woman’s anxieties about identity and sexuality, while Moore does a remarkable job of delineating the character of Jules, the more sensitive partner who has had trouble finding herself and establishing a career. Bening’s performance has some stilted, off-key moments, but she does an admirable job of investing herself in the character of Nic, the backbone of the family, driven to make sure the kids, and her partner, are all right.
Mark Ruffalo is assigned the tricky duty of playing through a somewhat melodramatic climax, but Paul is the most colorful character – the earthy, wayward biological father of both Joni and Laser, who finds purpose in getting to know the results of his semen donation, and who is tempted to insinuate himself a little too far into a tightly knit family. An earthy dude, owner of an organic restaurant and member of an organic produce garden coop, Paul is the quintessential self-centered, motorcycle-riding Southern Californian doing his thing, perhaps realizing that doing his thing is getting a little bit lonely. Ruffalo dominates every scene he plays and provides humor as he assumes the duty of being our eyes on the workings of an alternative family dynamic.
The screenplay, however, strays into unnecessary stereotype and silliness, especially in the film’s less solid beginning. With such fine acting and many touching, naturalistic moments, we don’t need the dildo, which Laser (the sports-playing son who is clearly not gay) discovers in his Moms’ room. Later he catches Moms engaging in oral sex as they watch male-on-male porn. We don’t need the innuendo that comes when Jules explains how she had met Nic when she was working as an intern in ER and Jules had gone there when she had lost all feeling in her tongue. Wow, that seems stretching it for a reference to how Jules regained the use of her tongue! Ruffalo’s reaction to this suggestive joke is artfully done, but the whole scenario is silly. Why not assume that we know that gay sexuality is different but the same? Why not keep the focus on the realities of what it is for any adult, male or female, to maintain a steady relationship and raise children responsibly?
As a side note, I enjoyed the film’s healthy, edible mise-en-scéne. In one of his first scenes, Paul carries a basket of organic produce to his truck and snacks on a freshly picked tomato. When he introduces Joni to the garden, he breaks open a green pepper and shares its fresh crunch with her. Later, Joni and girl friend dine in Paul’s restaurant, their plates filled with colorful vegetables. Of course, the Moms always serve their children healthy food. Breakfast is cereal and fruit. Dinner is salad and pasta and veggies. The only junk food I noticed was a bowl of potato chips served with salads and grilled hot dogs eaten outside in the sun during Paul’s first visit with the family. Meanwhile, Nic loves her red wine, for its anaesthetizing effect, yes, but also for health reasons. Joni and Laser have parents who care about them – constantly asking their kids, “Is there anything you want to talk about?” They have parents who listen to them, who fuss over them, who hug them, who feed them healthy food. Yes, the kids are all right and eating well too, and the film convinces me that Nic and Jules are great parents, but I could have used more focus on how the kids feel about their same-sex parents and how they are all right with that.