Nic (Bening) and Jules (Moore) are a longtime L.A. couple in the midst of midlife sweatpants malaise, each the biological mother of a teen child from the same sperm donor.
Upon departing for college, daughter Joni (Wasikowska) makes a tentative phone call to track down the mystery donor. Turns out he’s nearby, accessible, and terminally hip, cruising around Silverlake on his motorcycle and running a trendy organic restaurant stocked with lush fruit and vegetables he grows himself in the nearby hills. Playboy Paul (Ruffalo) picks up the phone on a whim — the same way he makes every choice in his life — but finds the new role of instant daddy to be oddly enriching. The kids think he’s pretty cool, too, especially sensitive son Laser (Josh Hutcherson), who’s looking for a better male influence than his idiot skater buddy. As Paul slowly works his way into the family’s unsteady core, resentment and jealousy bloom — in some cases, rightfully so.
Ruffalo is forever seductive, almost unconsciously, as if sensuality were a cloud that hovers over him. When Jules begins a remodeling project in Paul’s overgrown backyard, the sexual tension between them is nearly visible, like arcs of electricity sparking between their softly pursed lips.
Though the script sometimes dips into dreary therapist blather, the actors smartly keep a few paces ahead of it. Other times, Cholodenko tries too hard to make her teens sound hip, such as Joni’s insecurely slutty friend, who tosses off cutesy Diablo Cody-ready wordage: “Fair enough hairy muff,” or “Your spermster is a total hottie.”
The overall, if imperfect, impression is of realistic, lived-in lives full of all the hurts, regrets, and joys in any loving family. As the sternly responsible Nic, Bening looks weathered and leathery, but her complete lack of vanity keys her performance — she’s emotionally uncomfortable and loving in equal measure to her rawness.
Ruffalo and Moore are both terrific, turning in award-worthy work. But the real revelation is Wasikowska; fresh from Tim Burton’s Alice, she embraces beautifully the even stranger realm of adult drama.
In a sense, Cholodenko has filed an amicus brief on the viability of lesbian parentage; her most compelling argument is how normal the neuroses and relationship issues look in the hazy West Coast light. Jules and Nic are full of doubt and mistrust, which from the outside appears sort of silly. Though the script was co-authored by Cholodenko’s friend Stuart Blumberg, the male characters feel ever-so-slightly unfinished. Still, considering the myriad mainstream films that treat women like set dressing, The Kids Are All Right is refreshing.
In one of her garden encounters with Paul, Jules uses the word “fecund,” and that’s what this film is: rich, alive, and warm, but also painfully fragile. The Kids Are All Right is complicated and messy, awkward and brilliant, and as so often happens with families, it disappoints us even as we fall deeper in love with it.