Last night I managed to catch the new Lisa Cholodenko film The Kids Are All Right. My knowledge was limited to the cinema programme’s description as ‘a moving and funny family drama that’s both an intimate character study and a comedy of errors’ and a rather lovely poster I’d seen on the Tube last week.
It explores the ordinarily complex relationships between five people – a family of four complicated by the somewhat awkward introduction of the sperm donor who fathered the children. That the parents in this otherwise nuclear family are a lesbian couple, each of whom mothered one of the kids is slightly secondary to the film; it is subtlety of this smart screenplay that makes the movie so engaging.
This is not to say sexuality doesn’t have a part to play – far from it. Sex generates the majority of the laughs, and later the tears. A memorable scene springs to mind when the ‘momses’ are jointly and tactfully attempting to persuade their son to open up to them, labouring under the suspicion that he may be in a gay relationship himself, with the audience revelling in both the dramatic and social irony of it all.
The script affirms that all family units are dysfunctional to a degree, and moreover, even the most ‘unlikely’ ones demonstrate recognisable motifs in the way they interact with each other; the exhausted breadwinner snapping at the flakier other half, teenagers exploring their own sexuality through porn DVDs and lingering looks at long-term friends, a ‘middle-age crisis’ and the pang to start a family, to name but a few.
What helps make these instances so relatable is the excellent acting. No character study is worth its salt without convincing individual performances. The characters are masterfully pitched between recognisable and refreshing, meaning we’re faced with neither tired stereotypes nor alien strangers. Ultimately they all feel like real people – with their triumphs and their flaws, and I could’ve easily watched more of their engaging truthful relations.
The honesty of the film is perhaps best summated through a standout moment of pure honesty from one of the characters. Seeking penitence for the hurt she has caused her loved ones, Julianne Moore’s character Jules describes so candidly the difficulties of marriage and other long-term relationships. It’s a powerful enough monologue that her account feels unquestionably faithful.
It helps that the film seems to be shot in a way that is intimate yet relaxed. The audience were chuckling within the first few minutes, with characters they barely knew. The style of shots and placement convey both comic effect and poignancy and make both the adult and the teenage characters accessible and worth investing in.
The eponymous kids really do add something to the film, and certainly aren’t extras fodder. Both Joni and Laser are smart and witty in their own ways – upon being asked for an embarrassing hug by one of his mums, he points to the other, saying ‘hug her – that’s what she’s for!’ before mooching off upstairs. Yet they’re still growing and learning, about relationships with their friends, with their sexualities, their career paths and with themselves.
They drive the story, with the younger brother asking his now-eighteen sister to seek out their biological father on his behalf, introducing him into their story and setting off the chain of events that fuels the narrative. In some respects the kids, as many do, demonstrate moments of greater level-headedness than their parents. The scene where Joni is dropped off at university, and has to console her weeping mums was particularly fresh memory for both me and the friend with which I watched it.
The fragility Joni subsequently demonstrates after asking them to give her some breathing space in her new room and then panicking as she thinks they’ve left altogether shows that though the kids are alright, they’re not and probably never will be entirely all right or self-sufficient. And neither will anyone else. Everyone needs supportive relationships: that’s what families are for. But it’s not a static freeze-frame, even when the kids grow up. Individuals, as they grow and change, re-negotiate what form those relationships assume.
I absolutely adored the film and recommend it wholeheartedly. It’s one of the best that I’ve seen this year and unparalleled it’s gripping exploration of the in many ways conventional family unit, lesbians and sperm donors or otherwise.