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Erica Abeel Headshot

The Kids Are Alright, but Is the Rest of America?

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Why does one film feel authentic, while another goes down like over-processed deli turkey? Two current films exemplify this contrast. The "small" French film, Mademoiselle Chambon lays out a story of love and sacrifice that you believe every moment of the way.

While The Kids Are All Right by Lisa Cholodenko, a film ballyhoo'ed from the Sundance fest to Berlin, yields the unmistakable taste of packaged food that's barely identifiable through the preservatives. Too often it comes across like a product of focus groups, rather than the undoctored vision of an individual.

Yet the premise of Kids could hardly be tastier. Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) a longterm married lesbian couple, enjoy a lively family life with their two kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), about to leave for college, and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), an athletic fifteen-year-old. Nic, a tightly wound doctor who's perhaps overly fond of wine, is the breadwinner; Jules, essentially the stay-at-home mom, has floundered in her vocational efforts.

What filmmakers call the inciting incident occurs when Joni and Laser covertly contact their sperm-donor father, throwing the family dynamic wildly out of whack. Bio-dad Paul (Mark Ruffalo) turns out to be a mellow bachelor and college drop-out who now runs a thriving locavore eatery. A guy who's played it fast and loose with the ladies, he's only too happy to annex himself to this ready-made family. The stew thickens when Jules, an aspiring landscape designer, signs on to spruce up Paul's property -- and falls into the sack with him. "For Paul," Ruffalo has said, "Jules is like the ultimate conquest; not only is she married ... she's also a lesbian. Forbidden fruit, kind of taboo. [And] they have an immediate intimacy and connection because they share a child.'

I mean, this is potentially great stuff! And Cholodenko comes close to pulling it off. Her resume, after all, includes Laurel Canyon, a sassy, quirky portrait of California denizens and their clashing life styles. In her tight screenplay for Kids (co-written with with Stuart Blumberg) every scene earns its keep in relaying the story of a buffeted family struggling to regain its footing. As always, Annette Bening is glorious -- there's a nervous intelligence that shines through (a quality you wouldn't often single out in American actresses), and in Kids Bening gets to strut her comedy skills playing a control freak and tippler. She's especially funny in her withering dismissal of Paul's anti-intellectual stance.

Would that the rest of the cast had the goods to ante up like Bening. Julianne Moore, it seems to me, never moves beyond her all-purpose screen persona; despite the "honey's" she throws at Nic, she's scarcely different here from her turn as a gynecologist (say what?) in Chloe, or the hot mama from Boogie Nights. Mark Ruffalo, who speaks with mush in his mouth, is ever reprising the slacker brother from You Can Count On Me and should maybe broaden his resume by playing Iago or someone. Mia W., the new "it" girl, sometimes has the look of a wizened old man, while the miscast Josh Hutcherson seems more California rent boy than conflicted teen.

Most troubling, though, Kids feels forced. It's basically a sit com about a family crisis, the twist being that the heads of family happen to be lesbians. Cholodenko seems constantly to be waving in our faces the notion that this is a normal jus' folks American family that happens to be gay. Maybe in Park Slope or Venice, California it's jus' folks, but it's hard to imagine that the two mommies version of the American family wouldn't encounter a whole mess of problems in a country that hasn't exactly embraced gay marriage. There's a PC-ness that clings to every scene, an over-insistence that these guys are no different from June Cleaver and friends.

Kids also offers its share of cringe-worthy moments, including an early sex scene with Nic, Jules, and a male porno film. Maybe the scene was meant to illustrate the rote intimacy of a longterm couple, but it comes across as unfunny slapstick -- and illustrate is exactly the problem; scenes hammer home points without feeling organic.

Also confounding is Jules's explanation to her son's question about why his "moms" would get turned on by male porno. Jules's candor is supposed to represent responsible parenting, but it's mainly a poster moment for moms who say too much. And there's the small matter that Jules appears to dig sex with Paul (though it's filmed as unappealingly as the Nic-Jules duos). When Nic asks her if she's now straight, Jules says "I don't want to be f-----, I want to be appreciated," throwing us deep into the La Brea tar pits of psychobabble. Cholodenko wants to have it all: retain her indie creds while selling Kids as hi-concept entertainment at the multiplex.

But to end on a positive note: along with It's Complicated by Nancy Meyer, Kids marks a promising new direction for films by and about women. Nancy Meyer gave the sixty-year-old woman played by Meryl Streep romantic choices (me, I would have picked Alec Baldwin, but never mind ...) Now with Kids Lisa Cholodenko has built a family dramedy around a lesbian couple's household. With any luck both films, landmarks, in their way -- at least in America -- will open the gates to entertainment that speaks to viewers hungry for adult fare.