The people at the center of “The Kids Are All Right” are Nic (Annette Benning) and Jules (Julianne Moore), a long time lesbian couple raising their two kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson) in the suburbs of LA. The Moms are opposites—Nic is a perfectionist doctor, Jules a free spirit still searching for her way—but the family is happy. Happy, that is until Joni contacts her biological father via the sperm bank. Turns out donor dad is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a SoCal restaurateur who had no idea his sperm bank contributions resulted in one child, let alone her brother Laser as well. Despite Jules and Nic’s trepidation the kids form a relationship with Paul, but his presence brings with it some unwanted consequences.
There is a scene near the end of “The Kids Are All Right” that sums up the feel of the whole film. At a dinner party Nic and Paul sing a Joni Mitchell song. The “performance” is joyful, ridiculous and poignant simultaneously and is a perfect microcosm of the script. Like real life, the ups and downs of this particular group of folks are unpredictable, sometimes funny, sometimes not. This well drawn cast of characters keeps the basic story afloat, adding richness and color to a story that could have been an average romantic comedy.
Bening and Moore are warm but complicated presences. The audience never doubts for a second that they’ve been a couple for twenty years, and their intimate moments, their testy moments, their funny moments and their heartbreaking moments are believable and dynamic because of the skill of these two actors.
As Joni Mia Wasikowska, such a flatline as Alice in “Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland,” shines here as the brainiac who is just coming into her own.
Also impressive is Mark Ruffalo as Paul, the interloping sperm donor. He’s a lonely guy in search of a family, and despite the trouble he causes—both wittingly and unwittingly—Ruffalo makes him charming and believable.
There’s that word again. Believable. Believability is the main strength of this film. The characters have a lived-in, realistic feel so even when the story falters the people in it don’t.
It’s a story that is both very specific and rather universal, all at the same time. Nic and Jules may have an nontraditional marriage but their story of parenting issues, mid-life crisis and long term commitment is as traditional—and crowd pleasing—as we’ve seen in a movie this year.