The Kids Are All Right

Funny, sweet, moving–with the kind of casually-excellent and embodied acting that mutes the occasionally-too-sharp definitions of the dramedic plotline.

I’ll get the churlish out of the way. About half-way through, there’s one of those utterly-tedious establishing shots that clutter so much American film: the outside of the family home, a woman strategically walking her dog through to show us the everyday reality of the neighborhood. You can almost feel the movie’s IQ drop a couple points. And Lisa Cholodenko *does* rely upon an arc familiar to any number of comic melodramas. I found myself gritting my teeth on a couple of occasions, and overall wishing for a bit more of the actors’ counter-intuitive naturalism inflecting the plot.

But I also saw this in a big mall multiplex on a summer Saturday night, with a mostly-packed crowd. This is a film about a long-time lesbian couple, their two kids, and the raffish sperm donor father who re-enters (and massively disrupts) all of their lives. It is frank and open about a variety of desires — yet it is also a sweet film about family values, about the difficulty of living with one another–and the joys that come with such. MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD.

To complain about the inexorable shift toward a predestined happy end would be more frustrating if the end here wasn’t our protagonists holding each other’s hands as their teenage son wisecracks. There’s something kind of wonderful about the co-optation of a conventional form to shift the bounded assumptions about what conventions ought to be.

And it has all these stray moments of small-scale wondrous acting. Mia Wasikowska, the elder daughter, again illustrates (see her performance in season 1 of In Treatment) her amazing chops–her best moment is a quiet bit of solitude, her family just having dropped her off to college, and that rush of joy and fear bubbles just under the surface as she stands and stares after them. Mark Ruffalo manages to inhabit his character’s too-easy charisma, and to capture some of the man’s loneliness — even as the character himself doesn’t quite realize how he feels. And Moore & Bening–both of whom can sometimes nettle me, as they can seem too actorly–each have moments where the tics of “character” submerge.

It’s a really good–not great, but really very good–film. See above re establishing shot: I can accept, even embrace the desire for a mainstream narrative. But a few bad habits of Hollywood filmmaking bugged me enough to disrupt the film’s otherwise-immersive sense of home.

4 thoughts on “The Kids Are All Right

  1. I liked it, I guess, but I’m not as effusive as Associate Dean Reynolds. I thought Kids/Alright was slicker than necessary (it needed a bit less of Nancy Meyers’s design-chic aesthetic and a bit more of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s polymorphous perversity). And if I harken back to my Northrop Frye chapter on the “mythos of spring,” is it me of does the obstructing character triumph in the end? I mean, we have a vision of normality (or what passes for normal in a modern American marriage), then there is topsy-turvy dom with the arrival of the “interloper.” Some might argue there’s even a green space to enter into and from which characters will return (renewed, refreshed, reinvigorated). But, without giving too much away, am I wrong to root for the very character the film wishes to situate as the closest this comic melodrama gets to a villain? Is it wrong that I root against the family because of said character’s charisma, charm, and new-age honesty (and – SPOILER – the fact that said character is truly cast out of the narrative just when I wanted more . . . not so much from said character but from all the characters . . . made me angry). Finally, I dig the ambiguities, but this family is just as messed up at the end as it was at the beginning. Maybe that’s the point. And the peeing on the dog scene . . . really? Was that the best way to tidy up that thread?

  2. I agree–it was much tidier than I wanted it to be, and too schematic. But I liked that Joni (Mia W) did throw Paul’s hat into the car, a (literal) throwaway gesture that suggested some future. I liked that–hand-holding aside–there was just as much mess at the end as at the beginning. I mean, why will they stay together? The son Laser’s reason is as good as any other–in the end, there isn’t really a rationale for marriage (or togetherness), as much as a will to make it work. I liked that.

    I also liked that Paul was both ridiculously engaging and yet not without flaws and faults. He was a non-villainous villain–I mean, you got the sense that, however flawed his emotional urges with Jules, he really meant them. He was absolutely sincere in his affections, if also not as fully attentive to the difficulties attendant with them.

    I guess it was a bit slick, and wish it had been just as generous but knottier… yet I have trouble complaining given how generous it actually was. (And I agree about cutting back on the Meyer influence–or, I think, the James-Brookishness of some aspects, but I’m not sure it needed Pasolini. I’d wish for a bit more Altman; narrative be damned, let character–and freeform desires–reign.)

  3. I think also that Nick (Bening) was being set up as a sort of villain–and I very much appreciated the film’s unwillingness to cast her off, but to accept her selfishness and occasional authoritarian missteps. She doesn’t have to “grow” or change–hell, even Jules doesn’t. Heck, neither does Paul, eh? The film does neatly sidestep redemption and growth, the old stand-bys of bourgeois middlebrow film.

  4. It felt pretty middlebrow to me, but, yeah, messier. Short the reason we all stay together in our marriages, why will Nic and Jules? Why should they given everything the script and the actors share with us? Frye would cast Nic as the obstructing character, right? Nicola was certainly turned off by her. I thought maybe Bening and co. were pushing too hard with the butchy performance but was willing to go with the flow up to a point. I did love the scene at the dinner table when Paul and Nic started singing Joni Mitchell. I just hated the way the narrative smacked upside the head the most engaging, albeit flawed, character in the film. As far as “character” goes, Paul is the only one who actually has something of an arc. He grows up a little bit and realizes he doesn’t want to be the fifty-year-old “cool guy” shagging the barmaid. He wants something more substantial . . . a family, maybe. And yeah, maybe what he really wants is Joni and Laser and Jules . . . but, of course, he can’t have them. Still, as our nuclear family was finding it’s way back to square one via some hand-holding, I was empathizing mightily with the character pushed out of the frame. It was a weird experience.

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