"The Kids Are All Right," this summer's sleeper hit starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, tells the story of a sister and brother who make contact with their father, whom they only knew as "the sperm donor." But it is more than a movie about a twenty-first century family, a lesbian couple and their kids. It is a movie that captures, with respect and sensitivity, the hard work required to keep marriages alive, to raise children, and for both children and adults to meet life's challenges.
Nic and Jules, the "moms" have been committed partners for at least 20 years. The movie takes place during the summer after Joni, their daughter, graduated from high school and prepares to leave home for college. Joni's imminent departure stimulates emotional issues for each parent, which is complicated when Joni secretly makes contact with Paul, the anonymous sperm donor both of her mothers used in their respective pregnancies.
Nic and Jules, like many parents, put their energies in to raising their children, and let their marriage take a backseat. Consequently, their relationship suffered, tension grew and their physical intimacy appeared to wane. Their daughter's near pending departure, and Paul's unexpected presence only makes matters worse.
While Nic and Jules love both their children, Nic's attachment to Joni, her biological child, is stronger than her attachment to Laser, and Jules' attachment to Laser, her biological child, is stronger than her attachment to Joni. In their attachments, it becomes apparent how strong the power of biology influences personality. Joni, emulating Nic, is an outstanding student, excelling in science and driven to succeed. Laser, emulating Jules, is a free spirit, sensitive and loving, but lacks goals and does not live up to his potential. Nic understands Joni, while Jules better understands Laser, and preferential treatment becomes a result of this understanding.
The Kids Are All Right illuminates the subtle displays of favoritism -- the smiles, nods and acceptance of questionable behaviors. Each parent critiques their partner's relationship with their preferred child, but cannot view their own relationship with their own child as realistically. Jules counsels Nic to be less demanding of Joni who is already driven to meet high standards, and Nic counsels Jules to be more demanding of Laser who struggles with boundaries and authority. While each partner respects the balance provided by the other, in the brief window of time covered by the film, neither parent succeeds in modifying her behavior.
Joni, as the obedient daughter who played by the rules, is the child who ultimately breaks the family's major rule -- silence regarding the sperm donor. In having done so, Joni, who at the beginning of the movie is portrayed as emotionally young, pushes ahead with the fundamental work of adolescence -- to actively forge an identity separate from her parents. In challenging her mothers and seeking contact with Paul, Joni deliberately sets in to action events in which she is forced to make her own decisions and act independently. These are psychological skills she will need if she is to succeed when living on her own at college. Interestingly, and not surprisingly, it was Nic, the parent to whom Joni is most attached, who is most upset that she made contact with Paul.
The emotional growth of the three major adults portrayed in "The Kids Are All Right," Nic, Jules and Paul, seems to have been stunted from at least the time when Paul sold his sperm to the sperm bank, and Nic and Jules were inseminated. The movie illustrates the personal consequences. While loving each other, Nic and Jules are both lonely in their marriage. Nic is portrayed as being cut off from her emotions, turning to wine and work for expression. Jules, more sensitive than Nic, is aware of the loneliness, and she is unsuccessful in altering the marriage or in rekindling the sexual spark. Ultimately Jules has an affair. Paul has lived a life void of closeness and intimacy. The status quo in each of their lives is upset by the tension generated by the coming together of Nic, Jules, Paul, Joni and Laser.
"The Kids Are All Right" may not be a great movie technically. The edits are sometimes abrupt and the relationships between some of the characters, especially Paul and Joni, and Paul and Jules, develop too quickly. But, the movie is a treasure. It portrays the nuances of family life. Families are what they are, made up of adults and children, all with their own personalities and attachments, needs and desires. All doing the best they can. The movie is far better than All Right.