Monday, July 26, 2010

FAMILY TIES, FAMILY VALUES: a review of "The Kids Are All Right"

"THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT" Co-Written and Directed by Lisa Cholodenko
**** (four stars)

As critical as I am, and continue to be, over the generally sorry state of current Hollywood films, I am equally critical (and at times, even more so) of comparatively lower budgeted independent films. Where Hollywood sleepwalks through tired formulas, clichés and dead end sequels, reboots and re-imaginings, I sometimes find myself even less tolerant of independent films’ lesser qualities. It seems to me, that while some independent filmmakers go out of their collective ways to rub it in the audience’s faces that they exist outside of the emptiness of Hollywood, they forget about the basic storytelling that houses basic emotions, so much so that the films in question become smug, masturbatory exercises in hipster quirk. Self-consciously quirky characters race through self-consciously quirky plots doing self-consciously quirky things while speaking self-consciously quirky dialogue. It is enough to make me want to hurl something at the screen, since the entire proceedings seem to stem from some self proclaimed industry of cool.

I would like for you to please take a few moments and think about a few fairly recent independent films, some of which have many elements I admired, some of which irritated me to no end. While I realize that I just may be in the minority for most to all of these films, I hope you will see the point I am trying to illustrate. For me, “Garden State” (2004), “Lars and the Real Girl” (2007) and especially, “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004) and the highly celebrated “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006), while each containing some good points, were essentially extended whimsical eccentricities that all substituted pseudo colorful characters and situations for provocative subject matter and complex adult emotional themes. If those films carried even a shred of authenticity. If they carried any approximation of real emotions and life as it is really lived instead of the insufferable posing, the prefabricated attitudes and again, the smug buckets of quirk, all of those aforementioned films would have sailed into being some of my favorite movies.

Given the current state of Hollywood and independent films these days, I sometimes wonder if critics tend to over-praise when something fairly decent comes along. I can easily understand the sentiment for movie critics as they have to see everything and suffer through so many unwatchable time wasters that I am certain that anything different may feel like a cinematic breath of fresh air. That said, I do tend to remain skeptical as I ponder which film to see next. In regards to Writer/Director Lisa Cholodenko’s extremely well reviewed new film “The Kids Are All Right,” I have to admit that I was feeling that very skepticism when I entered the theater. I was preparing myself for the smug onslaught of the self-congratulatory quirk, just ready to seethe against it and hate it. What I happily received, was an enormously engaging, extremely funny, deeply perceptive and open-hearted film that for me, is undoubtedly one of 2010’s very best films.

Annette Bening and Julianne Moore luminously star as Nic and Jules, a longtime upper middle class married couple. Nic, a physician, is the tightly wound family breadwinner while Jules, earthier and usually in a state of transition, has decided to begin a new landscaping business venture. The two are Mothers to the titular kids, Joni and Laser (played by Mia Wasiowska and Josh Hutcherson), half-siblings conceived through artificial insemination from an unknown sperm donor. The kids are typical teenagers with typical teenage lives filled with questionable friendships, hidden crushes and for Joni, who has just reached the age of 18, is now spending her last few weeks at home before leaving for college. The sensitive, athletic, 15 year old Laser has begun to grow curious about the existence of his birth Father and convinces his somewhat uninterested sister to investigate.

Enter the swaggering “shaggy dog” Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a chef, restaurant and organic co-op farm owner who one day receives a phone call from Joni, expressing a desire to meet. Surprised and curious to meet the living results of his sperm donation at the age of 19, Paul meets both kids and the threesome begin to create a tentative relationship, which eventually works its way back to Nic and Jules. The arrival of Joni and Laser’s Father first causes minor tremors and ultimately throws the entire family into a disorder of such proportions where all five participants are confronted with past and current life choices, the consequences from those choices and new questions concerning their respective futures as individuals and as a family.

“The Kids Are All Right” effectively bridges the gap between Hollywood features and independent films by being an enormously entertaining family comedy-drama where all of the complex family dynamics are beautifully and succinctly presented as raw and as real as life itself. It is not a film about huge revelations or prefabricated, hyperbolic drama as the relationships between all of the characters are inherently dramatic enough. There are no tragic secrets to unearth and no major surprises. Moreover, and so thankfully, there is not even one, solitary moment of self-congratulatory and smugly presented quirkiness on display whatsoever.

Let me just take you back to the Oscar nominated “Little Miss Sunshine,” a film that mostly kept me at arms length. For me, that was a film where the self-congratulatory and smugly presented quirk was on dangerous display as we had to deal with a collective of characters that existed only as post-ironic words on a poster board. We were all inundated with Greg Kinnear’s “Failed Motivational Speaker,” Paul Dano’s ”Nearly Mute Flight School Hopeful,” Alan Arkin’s “Lecherous, Foul Mouthed Grandpa,” and worst off all, Steve Carrell’s “Suicidal Homosexual Proust Scholar.” It was exhausting and oft putting to me because these characters solely existed between quotation marks. They were so busy dancing around the screen with top hats, tails and canes carrying neon signs crowing about how unique they were that they, never for even one minute, functioned as approximations of real people. “The Kids Are All Right” wisely and greatly sidesteps that crucial error by having their character’s traits stem from who they are internally, not externally.

“The Kids Are All Right” is a film that wants to engage with you as it explores behavior, the tenuous dance of intimacy between consenting adults and the delicate balancing act all families have to endure. Cholodenko and her writing partner Stuart Blumberg insightfully explore, in a very clever manner, where exactly do our own personal character traits originate from. Through Joni and Laser, we are subtly shown the variety of mannerisms, expressions, faults, temperaments and predilections of all three of their parents and how those very traits are reflected back in turn and in sometimes, very painful and explosive fashions. Cholodenko suggests that the kids are definitely all right, as the parents are the ones who are going through an emotional upheaval. Joni and Laser have a sense of themselves the three adults pointedly do not as Nic, Jules and Paul are all experiencing waves of their respective midlife crises, that ultimately leads them to indulge in highly questionable decision making.

And finally, the film gives us a great love story, the kind of which we rarely see and I certainly do not especially mean because the two women are lesbians. What I am talking about is the following. With all of the movies out there that depict the act of falling in love, I have rarely seen a film that took the time to devote itself entirely to the act of staying in love, the work it takes to maintain and nurture and the precarious ebb and flow of marriage. With Nic and Jules, we are witnessing a stage where their love is ebbing more than flowing and Paul’s arrival serves as the tremendous catalyst to unearth past desires, long simmering resentments and entrenched disappointments with each other.

Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are a formidable pair as they have crated a relationship and marriage that feels real and lived in. Bening is outstanding as Nic, who is a defiantly difficult and prickly character to play, a feat which she handles with nothing but the highest of grace notes and completely without cloying award-season attention grabbing. Bening’s Nic is a demonstrably Type A character. She is a perfectionist, a control freak, and a woman who is not only struggling with the transition of her oldest child leaving the nest but also the lack of control she is able to place upon an evolving household and ever-shifting family roles. She is petulant, scornful, self-involved, condescending towards Jules’s waywardness, and is simultaneously resentful of her role as the breadwinner yet unwilling to relinquish her power. And her obvious alcoholism, fueled by her anger, frustrations and fear with her world sliding out of her control is unnerving. Yet, Nic is no monster as she is also seen as a fiercely loving Mother to her children and wife to Jules. Annette Bening hits every single note of this character to complete perfection, and if she does indeed receive attention during awards season, all of it is well deserved.

Julianne Moore is Bening’s equal as she is attempting to refigure her life, yet again, in the shadow of Bening’s lack of support and past disappointments. Her consistent wanderlust leads to her budding relationship with Paul, and allows her to feel a sense of reward and validation that Nic has long ceased giving to her. I am certain that there will be some controversy with Jules’ decisions throughout the film (which I will not reveal here) as how they relate to past film clichés concerning the treatment and depictions of lesbians. For me, I took all of her choices as relationship and life driven and not sexually driven. That no matter who gave her the attention, respect and again, the validation that she lacked, be it male or female, the same choices and consequences would have been made. For Jules, she has reached the point in her life, for better or for worse, where the emotional red lights of her life necessitated crossing. Julianne Moore injected a wise, painful comedic energy that served as a great counterpoint to Bening’s severity.

Like Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick in last year’s extraordinary “Up In the Air,” Bening and Moore jointly depicted the types of emotionally complex 21st century women that are on rare display in movies. And I especially loved how Cholodenko chose to film both of these beautiful women by allowing us to see all of the amazing lines of age in their faces and bodies by having the camera up so close and personal. No CGI air brushing allowed!

Mark Ruffalo gives one of his finest performances to date as Paul, the “go with the flow” sperm donor. While he is a certain type of ramshackle free spirit, he also possesses complex layers as he is a man who is a shrewd romantic player and businessman who has certainly run more than his fair share of emotional red lights. With the arrival of Joni and Laser, Paul is now confronted with the choices he has made in his past, issues of responsibility and remorse in ways he had never experienced before, and discovering, perhaps for the first time, what he just may really want out of life. He is the embodiment of the cliché, “Just because you can make a baby it doesn’t automatically make you a Father.” His confrontation with that reality places the disastrous consequences of his own emotional recklessness center stage especially once the lives of his own children are involved.

And special mention must go out to Mia Wasikowska, who is definitely a young talent to watch for. Her strong portrayal of Joni gives audiences the perfect opportunity to witness was was tragically not seen in her starring role in this year's terrible "Alice In Wonderland."

For those who are wanting a film that functions as a soapbox bellowing, Rainbow flag waving political smart bomb, “The Kids Are All Right” is decidedly not that movie and surprisingly, there have been a few complaints that the film doesn’t exist as such and doesn’t go far enough in being the ultimate lesbian parenting film. But for me, it is the act of not functioning as a message movie that makes it earn its obvious political status and statements. It is a simple movie with complex themes and relationships that beautifully shows exactly how life is lived and how people behave, especially when they are all trying to do the right thing by themselves and others. It is a film in the exact same league and excellence as Jonathan Demme’s extraordinary “Rachel Getting Married” (2008) with its depiction of a modern American 21st century family, the values contained therein and how those family nuances and alliances rapidly shift at the speed of love.

I cannot express to you enough the almost spiritual lift I feel when I see what I perceive to be a great movie! The sensation never fails and I am so excited to share that with you, while hoping that you will see it and feel the same. Certainly, there’s no visual flash in "The Kids Are All Right" that requires you to see it on the big screen, but I gently urge you to take a chance and spend some time with a film that will give you equal and ample doses of humor, insight, perceptive viewpoints and honest emotion. When a film of this quality come along, I believe it is our duty as consumers to go out to the theaters and support it, thus allowing the opportunity for more films of this level to be created and released.

Movies are too expensive and our time is too precious to waste it on movies that you forget once you leave the theater. "The Kids Are All Right" is a film to embrace, to debate over, to have a relationship with and most of all, it is definitely one to remember.

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