08 August, 2010

The Kids are All Right
A Film by Lisa Cholodenko

For a while now, there has been talk of "The Kids Are All Right," the newest film by Lisa Cholodenko (late of "Laurel Canyon" (the Duchess took her place)). The Duchess at last carved out a few hours for a Saturday matinee to see about what there is all this fuss.

"Kids" rests on a clever concept. Two women, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), each became pregnant using sperm from an anonymous donor. Their children, now teenagers, seek to know their sperm donor/biological father (Mark Ruffalo), and this innocent curiosity catalyzes the family drama that ensues. It's rather a fresh premise.

The exposition of the premise, however, is rather less fresh; in the Duchess's view, it's a bit stale. Both halves of the couple embodied by Ms. Bening and Ms. Moore tend too much in the direction of caricature: Ms. Moore's vintage tee-shirt-wearing, tattoo-bearing, "Right On"-assuring, composting, green tea-drinking, fledgling landscape designer self contains no contradictions; she suffers no consequences for her actions, even those that are scripted to pollute the family pool (because, after all, the kids will be "all right" in the end). She's an innocent dreamer bumbling through the midlife years.

As the film nears to its close, she shares with the audience (and her on-screen family) her newly acquired revelations: that marriage is a marathon, that sometimes we hurt most the people we love most. It would have been more interesting if Ms. Moore acted with intentionality, or even a malicious dose of selfishness, in so doing.

Ms. Bening handles her role as control-freak, uptight doctor Nic with more depth and creativity. It's a well-acted part. Ms. Bening's audience vacillates between liking and disliking (perhaps even loving and hating) her character throughout the movie. She is easier to relate to, at least for the Duchess, who especially identifies with the Type A, workaholic, endlessly nagging version of Mother that Ms. Bening's Nic presents. The most incredible aspect of the movie is that her character entertains less sympathy from the family than any others. If she were a man (a husband, that is), she would be lauded and revered for her strenuous work ethic and family management skills, and also for her sensitivity and efforts to communicate with and govern her teenaged children. Sometimes it's hard to be a woman being a man.

The actual kids, Joni and Laser (played beautifully by Mia Wasikowski and Josh Hutcherson), are practically flawless. There are one or two incidents of extremely minor rebellion (Joni rides on Mark Ruffalo's motorcycle; she drinks at a party), but on the whole they are completely well-adjusted, well-educated, emotionally stable and self-secure. They live a life of almost extreme privilege, to be sure, at least by 2010 standards (nicely appointed Venice home, check; Volvo station wagon, check; stay-at-home mom, check; physician other mom, check; endless supply of Converse all stars, check). And this privilege insulates them from a lot of the physical and emotional trauma suffered by their less well-off peers. So it is the adults in the movie who may be seen as the true "kids", acting out their frustrations and disappointments in traditionally childish ways.

We've all been there, of course. At that point when our personal, individual desires conflict with the needs and expectations of the group. And we have all (please let's be honest, friends) at times given in to those personal, individual desires, shutting down our otherwise reliable cerebral cortices in order to satisfy our demanding ids and egos. In the two hours the film has to develop a cast of characters, a plot line, and a very angsty soundtrack, it actually does explore this tension between individual and group interests in a subtle, and telling way. For instance, Jules indulges her carnal desires to near-catastrophe; she endures little in the way of judgment from her children and her wife, or from the filmmaker herself. Mark Ruffalo's sperm donor father Paul, on the other hand, ultimately suffers open retribution for his efforts to satisfy his own wants and needs and for seemingly ignoring the best interests of the family (not his own).

Now, look. The kids are all right. They aren't bad; they aren't great either. They aren't outrageously funny, or heartbreaking (forgive the Duchess, A. O. Scott), or even too original. But they do provide us with an opportunity to consider the nature and responsibility of love and family, and the growing complications surrounding those landmark institutions. And that's more than all right with the Duchess.

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