Still in catch-up mode on the movie front, so this past weekend I saw two flicks that have been making the rounds for awhile now. The first, and by far the better of the two, was Lisa Cholodenko’s well-observed situation dramedy The Kids are All Right — a smart, tautly-written family portrait that for at least its first two-thirds (before the inevitable recriminations pile up and all the characters start to vent at each other endlessly) is decently good fun.
Like I’ve said of movies like The Station Agent and You Kill Me in year’s past, Kids is unabashed indie-tainment, the type of small-bore, character-driven film that IFC or The Sundance Channel will no doubt be running into the ground six months from now. So, no, it’s not really the type of film anyone needs to rush out and see on the Big Screen, per se. Still, it is a well-made, well-acted picture, and not half bad as counter-programming if you’re looking for a grown-up, television-y alternative to the usual summer movie mayhem.
If nothing else, The Kids are All Right gives the promising Mia Wasikowska a peg to hang her hat on in 2010 after the thoroughly atrocious Alice in Wonderland. As Joni, an eighteen-year-old on the verge of leaving the family nest for college, she and her brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) impressively hold their own with their two, thespian A-lister moms, Annette Bening (Nic) and Julianne Moore (Jules). Taken together, this foursome is a 21st century nuclear family just like any other (a point which the movie perhaps overly belabors at first) — controlling oenophile Nic can’t leave work at work, flighty, hippie-ish Jules feels taken-for-granted, Joni’s chafing under the maternal yoke, and Laser has lousy choice in friends — until the two kids decide, out of curiosity, to get in touch with their biological father, a.k.a. their moms’ sperm donor.
That would be Paul (Mark Ruffalo, who I find more palatable now that he’s less over-exposed), a charming if self-satisfied local restauranteur who needed some easy money way back when and has scarcely taken on any more responsibilities since. Still, Joni digs his insouciance and his motorcycle-riding ways, and Laser likes him ok too, even if Dad’s not quite what he was expecting, and so Paul slowly becomes integrated into Nic and Jules’ household. Too integrated, for Nic’s taste — Perhaps slightly paranoid even on the best of days, she starts to feel pushed out of the way as the materfamilias, and after awhile, for very good reason.
And so the family tension crackles and pops, as per films of this genre. For the most part, the writing here (by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg) is admirably subtle and character-driven — the problems that emerge seem natural outgrowths of these particular people’s traits. Still, I have to confess the film lost me a bit in its final act, as the winds of marital strife blow in earnest, and everybody keeps yelling at everybody else. This isn’t to say it’s not well-done (although one of the main characters does seem to drop out of the story rather perfunctorily), only that watching people clearly in love writhe in pain, and/or waiting for second act bygones to get bygonned, as they pretty obviously will, becomes unengaging to me after awhile.
As a sidenote, which I doubt will affect y’all’s enjoyment of this movie one way or the other, I’ll also admit to feeling some distance from these characters throughout the entire story — not because of the non-traditional (yet universally applicable) marriage at the movie’s heart, but because the action, locale, and characters here are so…Californian. Nothing against the Bear Flag Republic — I’ve got great friends out there and from there, and, as Biggie says: Great place to visit. But, as someone who grew up in the South and has lived on the East Coast for decades, I always feel a bit like Alvy Singer or Roger Greenberg while on the Left Coast — ever-so-slightly not among my people.
And, what with the locavores and the wine-enthusiasm and the car culture and the emphasis on landscaping and the skater rats and the sandals and all the “Right On”!s, Kids is as California suburbs as Mystic River is Boston, or, for that matter, Larry Clark’s Kids is N.Y.C. It’s to the film’s credit that it possesses such a strong sense of place, I guess. But as a processed-food-eating, beer-enthusiast, carless renter of the East Coast persuasion, at times The Kids are All Right seemed as much of an exercise in local color as the Appalachia of Winter’s Bone.
This is merely a quibble, of course, and probably speaks less well of me than the movie. In any event, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids are All Right is certainly All Right, and probably a good bit better. It’s a reasonably compelling dramedy that’s precise in its details and laugh-out-loud funny at times. If you’re in the mood for a slightly Lifetime-ish family drama this summer, you could do much worse. And, if you were to wait until it ends up on Netflix a few months hence instead, well that’d be all right too. Right on.