A very pleasing exercise in the complexities and confusions of the modern family, The Kids Are All Right is the latest film by Californian director Lisa Cholodenko. But you may know it as “that one with the lesbian moms and the sperm donor”. Even put that simply, lesbian marriage, unknown paternity and artificial insemination are by no means trifling subjects for a film to offer. This is particularly so in the wake of some rather disappointing negative decisions and attitudes regarding the legal status of gay marriage. In lurid contrast to this inequality is the apparent normalisation of gay marriage presented in gaggy TV show Modern Family, the “gay wedding” of Sex and the City 2, and the high-profile same-sex marriages of Elton John to David Furnish and Ellen DeGeneres to Portia De Rossi.
Lesbian relationships, by nature of the regrettably uneven receptions they receive, are a delicate territory for portrayal in a film. Depicting one of the couple as “the man”, or introducing excessive cross-dressing or sexually explicit slang would definitely be a faux-pas here. This is not only because this film is about family, but because at least in part, it documents the graduation gay parents into the popular vocabulary – it’s a demonstration of our near future, wherein we will see more and more gay couples bringing up children without any of the special attention or stigma they would have received even ten or twenty years ago.
As you might imagine, the problems facing mothers Jules (Juliane Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening), are the trifling ones facing any family with adolescent children. Their concerns over their kids’ performance at school, awkwardly budding sexuality and questionable friendship ties are interrupted after their daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska, fresh from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) turns eighteen, and at the suggestion of her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson), asserts her legal right to contact the man who donated sperm in order for her mothers to conceive them both. Their expectations upon meeting this man are a formed from a complicated mix of defensiveness, feelings of abandonment, apparent longing for a father figure, curiosity and interest in the genetic heritage of their own talents and tastes.
The meeting proves that the question “Where did I come from?” is most often followed by “what will I do now that I am here?” Perhaps the most singular aspect of this film’s plot, and a magnificent matter to write about, is the fact that family are not chosen, however the arrival of sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo) necessitates a choice that most people will not ever have to make, and for which no status quo exists: who will we let into our family?
The characters of this film are exceptionally strong, and all performances are imbued with a romance and a comic clumsiness. Not a scene goes by without some kind of awkward pause, unconsidered comment, or hilariously banal conversation forced out by some previously un-navigated social arrangement. This is all whilst remaining a relatable story, and showing how easy it is for any of us to make poor decisions or panic ourselves into conversing in the inane. Very intimate handheld camera-work heightens the comedic impact of the awkwardness, yet also has the lovely effect of assuring the viewer of the safety of these characters’ dignity – we feel so close to them that we know their humiliations will ‘stay in the room’, or rather, in their family.
Also of note is writer-director Cholodenko’s inclination to demonstrate and develop the personality their characters in a quite curious manner. Further to a central conflict, the characters of the children have their own enclosed stories that are furnished by very minor characters. Whilst these do not develop in the same dramatic manner as the main story, or serve a great deal towards showing the children in any more depth (not that we are in want of depth), they do work as an eloquent narrative mark. They help us to be aware of the potential tales the children may go on to forge, showing each member of the family has their own life outside of it.
The Kids Are All Right might be the best film about close or complicated relationships I have seen this year. It’s a well-loved gimic for an actor to shout ‘Cut! Cut! What’s my motivation?’ yet I don’t hesitate in saying that the best part of this film, for me, is that these are characters who don’t have a grand plan. They act without thinking, without anticipating repercussions, or out of emotional reflex, just like many of us do, and they can only know what they want by experiencing all the alternatives first.