“I love lesbians!” the restaurateur Paul (Mark Ruffalo) exclaims early on in The Kids Are All Right. Paul is a laid-back bachelor who grows vegetables, juggles sexual affairs with ease and appears to have no interest in ever settling down. Then he learns the sperm he donated years ago as a college student resulted in two children, now teenagers, who want to get to know him — without their lesbian mothers’ knowing.
They find out soon enough, though. Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) took turns bearing Joni (Mia Wasikowska), 18 and preparing to leave for college, and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), a 15-year-old jock with questionable taste in friends. Nic is the breadwinner — she’s an OB-GYN — while Jules is still dabbling in potential business ventures (her latest: a landscaping/gardening service). The clan lives happily in a comfortable upper-middle-class house in Southern California, and their day-to-day routine has a pleasant, ordinary quality — a snapshot of a modern American family.
But Paul’s presence upsets the natural balance. Joni and Laser naturally want to spend time with him, but they worry that their “momses” will feel slighted or hurt. Nic, who tends to worry too much and drink too much, frets about the kids’ curiosity (“Like we’re not enough or something?” she asks Jules). In his awkward position Paul treads gently, careful not to intrude where he’s not wanted.
His introduction to the family, though, has consequences that, like the contents of Pandora’s box, cannot be withdrawn. The Kids Are All Right, the third and most personal film from director Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon), takes this simple yet intriguing scenario and pushes it in unexpected directions. Nic’s distaste for Paul, with his shaggy hair and noisy motorcycle, is immediate — you can practically see her nostrils flare — but Jules is more patient and receptive, and she gradually becomes as curious about him as the kids are.
Hair cropped short and eyes often set in a disapproving glare, Bening has rarely been better. You understand Nic’s fear and frustration as Paul becomes a larger presence in her kids’ lives. She fears he’s beginning to take over her family. Moore’s role is more emotionally complicated, for reasons that cannot be divulged here, but the actresses make such a convincing couple, the distraction of straight actors in gay roles never once enters your mind, the way it often does with other films.
The prevailing tone of The Kids Are All Right is comedic. There’s a memorably funny sequence in which Laser turns the tables on his mothers, who suspect him of being gay, and instead asks them why they like to get off watching all-male pornos (Jules’ explanation is fascinating). But the story grows more dramatic as it unfolds, culminating in a long dinner scene in which Nic makes a concerted effort to bond with Paul and, instead, makes a startling discovery.
Cholodenko, who wrote the script with Stuart Blumberg, handles the shifting of moods and tones expertly. The movie captures the bonds and frustrations among family members so effortlessly the otherness of the scenario melts away. The Kids Are All Right runs into the dreaded third-act woes — the story, so fresh and engaging, reaches a point at which there’s no place left to go but into cliché — but its emotional pull remains consistent to the end. The kids really are all right in The Kids Are All Right. It’s parents who are all screwed up.
Cast: Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson, Eddie Hassell.
Director: Lisa Cholodenko.
Screenwriters: Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg.
Producers: Gary Gilbert, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Celine Rattray.
A Focus Features release. Running time: 105 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, explicit sex, adult themes.