Sometime during The Kids Are All Right a sense of dread overwhelmed me—that feeling of realizing the film you’re watching is something really fucking wonderful. You see, it’s much more difficult to explain why you love a movie than hate it, and even more difficult to provide reasons for a nongenre piece; Lisa Cholodenko’s film is one of those rare gems that doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel—its story revolves around a love triangle and children seeking out their biological father—but perfects a story we’ve seen time and again by avoiding Hollywood’s ubiquitous trappings. There are no Julia Roberts or Richard Geres forcing their way into a marriage—nobody plots against another or walks down the aisle. It’s a film about real, lovable people who make real, foolish mistakes.
Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) are a married lesbian couple with two children—Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). As Joni turns eighteen and prepares to shuttle off to college, her brother cons her into calling up the local sperm bank and locating their biological father, an organic gardener and college dropout named Paul (Mark Ruffalo). The three meet up, bond over some handpicked veggies and plan further dates. When “Moms” (the nickname given to the lesbian couple by the kids) uncovers this flowering relationship, they insist on meeting Paul as well—a meeting that leaves the well-educated, medically trained Nic at ends with their sperm donor, and Jules in his employ as a personal garden architect. As might be expected, Jules falls for Paul despite her lifelong sexual orientation, and the two fuck uncontrollably for several days during work. When Nic concedes her gardener-come-father-figure a second chance, she discovers her wife’s lusty affair, throwing the entire family’s stability into limbo. Unexpectedly, however, Ruffalo’s character fails to return in any meaningful way—for all his lovability and cuteness, this is a film about the family, and nobody really walks off into the sunset. It has all the underpinnings of an excellent family sitcom/drama—by the end of its hour and forty minute runtime you feel as if you truly know and care about the characters—are invested in their lives.
One of my favorite film endings of all time is from The Graduate, when Katherine Ross and Dustin Hoffman plop themselves down on a bus and the camera stays glued to their faces, capturing their slow progression from utter excitement to questionable anxiety. It’s a bittersweet final shot to a beautiful film, and to say another captures that sort of denouement is the highest praise I’m capable of giving. The Kids Are All Right is one instance where I’m proud to bestow that honor. Unlike so many romantic comedies that rely on zany circumstances like needing to travel to Ireland on Leap Year’s Day or answering age-old letters addressed to Shakespeare’s Juliet while touring Verona, Cholodenko’s film feels relavent to society. In reality, just as in the film, people don’t enter into love affairs by traveling halfway across the country or methodically planning the downfall of a marriage—they just kind of happen, by chance or mistake. None of the characters are “bad”, and it’s honestly painful to see such a bittersweet end for some of the cast, but that’s also what makes this film so excellent. It’s the first (and likely last) tolerable romantic comedy released in some time, and one you’d be foolish to deprive yourself of.