Rating: ★★★★☆

A great story, rounded characters and genuine sense of fun.

The premise of this film is fraught with potential pitfalls. It’s a family drama, so we risk seeing yet another uninspiring look at a couple getting tired of each other and the kids being the ones who suffer, or worse, we risk another humdrum existential conundrum flick where provincial ennui sends an ordinary middle-class man/woman off the rails.

It’s also about the ‘modern’ (or maybe ‘post-modern’) family, because the parents presiding over a household of two teenage kids are a lesbian couple. Thus the spectres of absentee father figures and backward-thinking moral outrage rear their ugly head.

And, finally, the kids are about to find out who their biological father is. A recipe for textbook angst, insecurity and identity crises.

However, I’m pleased to report that ‘The Kids are All Right’ successfully dodges all of these dangers by focussing on the characters at its heart, and never bowing to convention or throwing in unnecessary twists or quirks just to spice things up a bit.

The foundation is committing to making the film about a well-educated, well-rounded family and sticking to that premise. Nic (Annette Bening) is the practical mother, and splits her time between mothering duties and her job as a doctor. Her wife Jules (Julianne Moore) is more of a drifter, excited by many career prospects but committed to few. Her latest venture is landscape gardening and Nic is doing everything she can to support her. Meanwhile daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) is 18 and about to go to college, she has boy problems but is generally pretty grounded, while son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is a budding athlete, but nonetheless a smart kid with his head screwed on: even if he does hang out with a dumb meathead who takes his friendship for granted.

At points this family unit seems a little too neat, they are all clearly intelligent, grounded individuals but they also have their own issues, which are flagged up quickly and left to simmer in the background as the main narrative begins to crystallise around them. But this neatness is absolutely necessary to keep the main event crisp, clever and funny.

The main event is, of course, the moment Joni agrees to contact her biological father so that Laser can satisfy his curiosity. When Paul (Mark Ruffalo) appears he has a slow and steady impact on the unity of the family. He’s a laid-back hippie type who has managed to set up a successful organic/local restaurant, a career that’s an instant hit with Joni and Jules. Nic is less impressed, and as he gets closer to Joni and Laser, and even offers Jules her first gardening project, she feels increasingly marginalised and frustrated.

This core arc is full of insight and bolstered by fantastic performances all round. Moore is excellent at maintaining our connection with Jules, even through some serious mistakes, while Bening never descends into showboating scenes of anger and frustration: always maintaining the veneer of control that is central to her character, both as a doctor and a woman. Ruffalo is equally impressive as Paul, it’s no easy task to be a laid back hippie with little care for consequences, but also somehow remain an honest and likable figure.

Best of all, the film avoided becoming a heavy drama by spattering the story with some great humour centred on its commentary on sexuality. Every character is at some point shone under the sexual spotlight, and each one comes up with a funny, irreverent or honest look into how we all deal with sex, relationships and the emotional ties we forge around them.

It might not be showy Oscar bait, but what it lacks in grandstanding and pandering to the ‘issues’ this film more than makes up for with its great story, rounded characters and genuine sense of fun.

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This article was first posted on October 29, 2010