The two most interesting female directors to come out of Sundance in the last 15 years - Nicole Holofcener and Lisa Cholodenko -- both have new movies that played Sundance in January and now are in theaters. Holofcener's Please Give has been out for a while. And Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right goes into limited release on Friday (7/9/10).
In general, I've preferred Holofcener's off-kilter dramedy of manners to Cholodenko's moodier output. But The Kids Are All Right has a life and liveliness that her previous films never approached.
Her film centers on exactly the kind of family that Proposition 8 sought to delegitimize: a nuclear two-parent household with teen-age children, where the parents are both women. They're a committed lesbian couple of longstanding: Nic (Annette Bening), a physician, and Jules (Julianne Moore), who has been the housewife and now wants to start a landscaping business.
They have two teen children, one borne by each, both from the same sperm-donor father. With the older of the two, the daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) , ready to leave for college, her younger brother, Laser (Josh Hutcherson), convinces her to make the call to track down their biological father.
He turns out to be a motorcycle-riding restaurateur, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who finds himself strangely drawn to his "children." Single by choice, he feels a new pull toward parenthood, or at least an impulse to get to know this fruit of his loins.
The moms aren't sanguine about it -- or at least not Nic, who is uncomfortable with the kids' burgeoning relationship with Paul. Jules, on the other hand, does engage with Paul -- and he hires her to landscape his yard. Which is just the boost needed by Jules, who feels as though Nic dismisses her career ambitions as so much wishful thinking.
Before either of them knows what's happening, Paul and Jules launch an affair. Jules is attracted, perhaps because Paul takes her seriously, as a landscaper and as a woman. It's not that Jules has renounced her lesbian relationship -- but after years of struggling to feel equal with Nic in the relationship, it's nice to be taken seriously by another adult.
I don't pretend to understand the sexual politics of lesbian relationships and how bisexuality fits into it. But Cholodenko is less interested in that than the personal betrayal involved in a marriage that is violated by infidelity. Unfaithfulness has repercussions, not just on the couple but on their children and the children's newly developed connection with their father.
Still, Cholodenko isn't making melodrama or soap opera. The film is less about the rift caused by the affair than the forces that led up to it and the way it changes all involved. This isn't a movie about gay marriage; it's a movie about marriage, period, and the way complacency and resentment can undermine a relationship -- and about how, once breached, trust is a fragile commodity to restore.
Bening plays Nic as a relatively humorless and self-righteous type, while Moore is her near-opposite: warm, embracing, intuitive, impulsive. Ruffalo's Paul is an obvious match for Moore, with his free-swinging, sensual approach to life. Wasikowska and Hutcherson do a good job of playing real-seeming teens, ones who love but are exasperated and occasionally embarrassed by their parents -- not because they're gay but because they're as square as any other parents.
The Kids Are All Right is about the perils and pleasures of peeling back the layers of a settled life. Kids are seeking answers; adults don't even want to ask the questions. The audience winds up the recipient of an insightful and touching story.