Higher art? 'The Kids Are All Right' finds Lisa Cholodenko pursuing a lighter tone.

Lisa Cholodenko Makes High Art of Family Hijinx

Dennis Harvey July 16, 2010

Lisa Cholodenko made one of the most arresting debut features of the late 1990s with High Art, a psychosexual drama that recharged (at least briefly) the moribund career of Ally Sheedy, and gave a big boost to then-relative unknowns Radha Mitchell and Patricia Clarkson.

Four years later, her sophomore feature, 2002’s Laurel Canyon, was also engrossing if a little too much High Art transplanted from Manhattan to L.A. Now Frances McDormand had the Sheedy role of a decadent older artist who entices hitherto starlight-and-narrow types (Christian Bale as her semi-estranged son, Kate Beckinsale his bride) to taste the wild side—with devastating results for all. Again, it was fascinating, superbly acted, dramatically juicy yet naturalistic. Still, one worried about Cholodenko, given that she was repeating herself so soon.

After some less personal TV work (including Cavedweller, a Dorothy Allison-derived Showtime feature), she’s finally back with a third feature. The good news—it’s all good, really—is that The Kids Are All Right shares certain thematic overlaps with her prior work but largely goes in entirely different directions.

A festival and awards-buzz favorite since its January Sundance premiere, it’s got some real depth and drama yet is largely comedic in tone. (Despite generous streaks of dark humor, nobody could say Art and Canyon were comedies.) Her earlier films saw relationships implode in cruel, bitter terms. Here, there’s kinder regard for characters who can (and do) screw up bigtime. They may hurt one another, but now the love runs deep enough to counter self-destruction.

Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) are a longtime Los Angeles couple who bore and raised two children now in their teens. Joni (Mia Wasikowska), just about to start college, has been the perfect straight-A student. Her 15-year-old sibling Laser (Josh Hutcherson) excels more at athletics than scholastics. Both are currently chafing a little under doctor mom Nic’s control-freakdom, with slightly dotty Earth Mother Jules—whose latest tentative career drift is toward landscaping—acting as buffer.

Having just turned 18, Joni can request information about the anonymous sperm donor who seeded both kids’ separate mommy wombs. While she’s indifferent, Laser presses her to do so. As a result, they get in touch—secretly, at first—with local restauranteur and organic farmer Paul (Mark Ruffalo). He’d contributed that jizz for cash as a 19-year-old college dropout, but is now rather thrilled to meet his hitherto unknown progeny. And they are quite taken with this surprisingly cool, motorcycle-riding dude.

When the moms learn of such stranger-danger suddenly welcome in their children’s lives—while latter are moderately rebellious at home—they demand to meet him. Nic’s hackles are raised by Paul’s boho boyishness, but he’s already bonded with the teens, and generously offers to let Jules sculpt his backyard garden.

Therein, a complicated situation gets much more so. Unplanned and inconvenient attraction between landscaper and client develops, exacerbating the stress-fissures in lesbian marital cement. Meanwhile, the “kids’” relationships with their old/new parents as well as peer best friends grow increasingly troubled.

The Kids Are All Right eventually hurtles toward messy, quite serious crises that all concerned will need time to get over. But much here is disarmingly funny—sex scenes especially—as well as psychologically nuanced and beautifully acted. The often profane yet quirky and everyday dialogue just sparkles in the screenplay Cholodenko co-wrote with Stuart Blumberg.

Two heterosexual actresses, Bening and Moore, play a same-sex couple with the kind of lived-in detail rare in screen marital portraits of any gender stripe. They’re terrific together, whether affectionate, squabbling, cross-parenting, or trying to reignite a nearly flickered-out flame. Ruffalo (who recently acted with Moore in the underrated Blindness) is at his most charming. And the kids—Tim Burton’s recent Alice in Wonderland Wasikowksa and Hutcherson (Cirque du Freak, Journey to the Center of the Earth Zathura)—are excellent as two bright teens typical in their roiling emotions and resistance to parental control.