The Kids Are All Right opens with shots of 18-year-old Joni (a wonderful Mia Wasikowska) playing scrabble with friends and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) sniffing a crushed Sudafed with his skateboarding buddy Clay, all to Vampire Weekend’s “Cousins.” Joni and Laser are gorgeous, smart and nice. Despite the minor drug use and usual teenager angsts, they are, for the most part, very much all right.
But this movie is really about their parents—their mother Nic, a perfectionist, workaholic OB-Gyn (played by Annette Bening, who has made a career specialty out of wound-tight women), and their other mother, easy-going, nurturing earth girl Jules (a very fine Julianne Moore), who has maybe let her life slide past her. A long-married couple, Nic and Jules have, as parents do, put their kids first for so long that they have lost touch with themselves and each other.
And yet they remain very self-aware and caring people. When they question Clay’s rightness as a friend, it comes couched in a language of earnest self-actualization and higher consciousness that is both insightful and ridiculous: “It’s just that he seems… untended.” And “Is he the kind of friend who will help you grow?”
Untended Joni and Laser certainly are not. Nic and Jules are extremely conscientious parents, and a great deal of the humor in the early part of this film comes from the overmothering Joni and Laser endure. Nevertheless, Laser feels the lack of a male role model and it is at his urging that Joni, having recently turned eighteen, the age at which she can legally request contact, learns the identity of their sperm donor and gets in touch with him.
The sperm donor is Paul, played by the miraculous Mark Ruffalo, who can shade a dozen layers of feeling and thought into a single moment. I’ve sometimes found that his extraordinary openness can come off as ambivalence, but his characterization of Paul is founded on a bedrock of emotion. Paul is not only open to contact with Joni and Laser, he welcomes it.
The three arrange a meeting at Paul’s restaurant, WYSIWYG (computer code for “What you see is what you get” and a tribute, perhaps, to Paul’s transparency). The kids explain to Paul that Joni was born to Nic, thus the blonde hair and stellar grades. Laser is Jules’s biological child, and seems to have inherited Paul’s dark looks and her more troubled nature. In fact, the only biological tie between Joni and Laser is Paul.
Never having wanted to search for her sperm donor, nor needed a father figure, Joni nevertheless finds an immediate sympatico with Paul. Laser, the pricklier kid, is intrigued but defensive. Nevertheless, he also wants to see Paul again.
When their mothers accidentally find out they’ve contacted the sperm donor, however, it is taken as a betrayal of the most profound sort. “Aren’t we enough for you?” Nic demands, furious. A question she will ask again. Jules, however, manages to calm Nic and convince that the only way to keep from losing their children is to allow them the freedom to get to know Paul. They are half him, after all.
Cholodenko, herself a lesbian parent of a sperm-donated child, is making a fearless, open-hearted exploration of the meaning of family, one that goes beyond politically correct bromides such as “Family is what you make it.” Thus the moment when Jules blurts out, in a conversation with Paul, “Sorry, I just keep seeing my kids’ expressions in your face.” And the way Joni and Laser gravitate toward Paul, studying him for clues to their own lives and selves. They intuit what Nic and Jules would shield from them—the knowledge that everything in life is not intentional, that the random, accidental and uncontrollable—not least, the biological—can count just as much.
We also see that any relationships between loving, well-intended people juggling work and meals and the exhausting project of fully engaged, perhaps too-engagedparenting, can fall out of balance. Nic drinks too much and judges too much. Jules yearns for intimacy and restlessly searches for her place in life. The betrayals and failures that ensue reveal the chasm that has grown between them.
But when Nic confronts Jules with evidence of the biggest of those betrayals, asking, “Are you straight now?” it’s less a question about sexual orientation than a heartbreaking acknowledgement that in any relationship, one can never be everything one’s partner needs.
“I have not been,” Nic admits to Jules elsewhere, “my highest self.” That same self-help spirituality again. Cholodenko is poking mild fun at a certain strain of affluent perfectability, at the same time she is calling us to arms. To our higher selves.
At the end of this extraordinary, perfectly crafted film, I thought of the lyrics of the Vampire Weekend song that started the movie. The chorus chants, “You can turn your back on the bitter world, You can turn your back on the bitter world.”
Nic and Jules, Joni and Laser are doing just that. Even as they lose Joni to college, driving away from campus, they close ranks, turning their backs on the bitter world and creating a safe place for just them. Where the kids are all right. And even their parents are all right. And that is the meaning of family.