This genie is not going back in the bottle.
Writer/director Lisa Cholodenko shines a contemporary light on a traditional
subject in her very good movie "The Kids are All Right." The subject is
marriage, and the new light springs from the vast cultural changes of the last
few years. Changes that used to evolve now come with warp speed to burrow
quickly into the fabric of acceptance. Gay marriage, sperm donors, and extended
families are here to stay, and Cholodenko and her terrific cast don't waste a
second raising their eyebrows.
The fact that Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are the married couple is incidental to the fact that their marriage is hitting the proverbial 20-year bump when the kids are getting ready to leave home. Things are getting prickly. Joni (Mia Wasikowska) is going off to college; Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is itching to find the sperm donor who fathered both of them.
Paul (Mark Ruffalo) is the relaxed former hippie who has carried his values forward to the organic restaurant he now owns. He is only too happy to accept Joni's invitation to meet his two offspring - and their mothers. Paul's entry into the family adds to the rocky weather. Responsible Nic is a serious doctor who is edging up to a drinking problem; Former hippie Jules floats from one interest to another and finds a new one in Paul whose unfocused life mirrors her own. Trouble.
That's the plot, but the skill here lies in the details. Cholodenko consistently directs her characters to reveal themselves in the little things - they way they brush their teeth, their clothes, their habits, whatever it is that unhinges each of them. Nic's impatience and Jules' airiness were on a collision course before Paul's arrival. It is also the small things that show their affection best - one hand on another, an unexpected smile.
All five actors become masters at conveying the awkwardness of people in emotional turmoil. No one knows how to handle the situation until it eventually handles itself. Bening paints Nic in crisp judgments and Moore takes refuge in the "feelings" of today's organic culture. Ruffalo is Ruffalo, and for this movie, that's perfect. By the time painful silence envelops the breakfast ritual, everyone is miserable. This is authentic awkwardness, familiar and beautifully captured.
Another smart stroke is the willingness of Bening and Moore to play their roles without trying to look younger than they are. These are women perfectly willing to be the harried mothers of adult children. Good for them.
As for the graphic sex and language from all players, it's a clear announcement that the prevailing culture refuses to hide today's realities. This genie is not going back in the bottle. A terrific writer and a fine cast give us an authentic look at the complexities of one contemporary family struggling with the new chaos. This movie might just do for all kinds of marriages what "Thelma and Louise" did for feminism.
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