Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.
I’ve said before that I always do my best to go into every movie I watch with hope. I hope it’s good. I want to enjoy it. Some movies have a higher initial hurdle in that respect, admittedly, but there are plenty of films that clear it. Fried Green Tomatoes is a great example—I expected to be bored and ended up enjoying myself watching it. With The Kids Are All Right, the opposite happened. We have a good cast (a great cast in terms of the adults) and I’m not opposed to domestic dramas. I walked out the other side of this not wondering why it was so acclaimed but wondering if we as a society are really that easy. I don’t like bagging on a film that got this much positive attention, but I don’t get it.
Nicole “Nic” (Annette Benning) and Jules Allgood (Julianne Moore) are a married couple living around Los Angeles. Nic is an obstetrician while Jules has more or less been a housewife, raising the couple’s two children, both of whom were conceived through the same unknown sperm donor. Older child Joni (Mia Wasikowska), who is Nic’s biological daughter has just turned 18, meaning that she can now legally ask for information about that sperm donor. She’s not interested, but her 15-year-old brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson), Jules’s biological son, desperately wants her to. She finally relents, and the pair discover that their biological father is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the owner of a local restaurant.
Joni and Laser go to meet Paul and, despite the fact that he seems a little too sold on himself, seem to like him. It’s not too long before the secret comes out and Nic and Jules discover that their children have met their biological father. They’re naturally a little hurt, but decide to meet Paul. Nic isn’t much impressed, but Jules seems to cotton a bit to his Bohemian attitude. To seal the deal, Paul hires Jules and her fledgling landscaping company to redo his backyard.
When we bring in the family dynamic, where The Kids Are All Right is going to go becomes obvious. It’s soon evident that Jules feels that Nic doesn’t appreciate her. She’s never felt supported in any of her business ventures, and with Nic being a bit too into wine and a bit too into control, Jules feels sort of emotionally abandoned. So it is that despite her being a lesbian, she starts falling into bed with Paul. Eventually, everyone finds out and there is pain and bitter recrimination all the way around.
Here’s my problem with The Kids Are All Right, and I’m going to say this as carefully as I can: the fact that the central couple of the movie is a lesbian couple doesn’t make me like it or care more about what happens. In fact, it might in this case detract from how compelling the story turns out to be. Boiled down to its basics, its elevator pitch, in The Kids Are All Right, the children of a lesbian couple discover the identity of their sperm donor and meet him. Through a series of events, he has a brief affair with one member of the lesbian couple. Okay, that’s interesting, and the fact that Paul is the biological parent of the two children does come into play; Nic even comments that it was the surest way for Jules to hurt her.
Now, let’s replace a single character. Let’s turn Annette Benning’s Nic into Nick, played by, say, Kevin Bacon (I’m choosing him only because he’s roughly the same age as Annette Benning, and because I like Kevin Bacon). Keep everything else the same, with the couple using a sperm donor for some medical reason. Now, we have a guy whose wife is having an affair with the biological father of his children, neither of whom are biologically his. Frankly, I think that’s a much more compelling story. There’s at least more potential drama in that.
Beyond this, I don’t really like any of the characters, with the possible exception of Mia Wasikowska’s Joni. Nic is a control freak and a borderline alcoholic. Jules’s feelings of underappreciation are easy to spot throughout the film because Nic treats her like a high-functioning child. For her part, Jules is flighty and a bit dippy, and she named her son Laser. Who the hell names a kid Laser? Laser himself is petulant and kind of a douche. And Paul is the sort of free spirit alternative lifestyle asshole who thinks his shit doesn’t stink, but because it’s entirely organic, it would make better fertilizer than your shit.
I think the performances are pretty strong all the way through, but they are in service of characters who aren’t worth the time. I also think the screenplay is very good. The film was at least partly written by director Lisa Cholodenko, and I think I’d like to see more movies that have come from her pen. A lot of what happens becomes obvious through non-expositional dialogue and character actions. When Jules tells Nic that the affair happened because she didn’t feel appreciated, we already knew that. That’s good writing.
But the movie itself? It fails on its biggest task: it’s less compelling than its premise and less compelling than it should be.
Why to watch The Kids are All Right: A good cast top to bottom.
Why not to watch: Strip away the “unique” parts, and it’s pretty standard fare.