Nic and Jules are a lesbian couple making a go of their version of the modern family, in “The Kids Are All Right.” The somewhat stern Nic (Annette Bening, “The Women”) is most gainfully employed as a doctor and is the de facto household leader, while Jules (Julianne Moore, “Chloe”) is a bit more featherlight, a flower-child type who doesn’t quite know where her place is in this world.
They’re different, but not drastic opposites, and the foundation of their strong partnership finds mortar with their two teenage children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska, “Alice in Wonderland”) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson, “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant”). It’s the last real summer together for the family as Joni readies for her college departure, and Nic and Jules do their best to hold on to every moment.
This generally means holding on a little too tight for Nic, who’s earnest in intent, but overbearing in impression. Her love is often smothering and occasionally suspicious.
Laser, meanwhile, is a typical high school boy: moody, brooding and not so great at choosing company. His best friend is a quasi-delinquent who plays a little rough, does a little drugs, and digs through a few other people’s drawers.
Like most moms, Nic and Jules can’t quite figure out what’s up with their teenage son. Maybe Laser is lost, or gay. Or possibly both, or neither. But Laser is looking for something: his biological dad, whom he shares with his sister, whose help he enlists to call the cryobank and initiate contact with the sperm donor, whose specimen was used to inseminate both moms.
It’s not the kind of call Paul (Mark Ruffalo, “Date Night”) was expecting, or in any way prepared for. A scruffy, bohemian bachelor who passes on showers and shirt buttons, Paul has carved out a pretty nice life as a earthy-hip restaurant owner. He ogles his dreadlocked waitstaff while excising Swiss chard from his organic co-op and hoes his sexy Afroed-hostess’ rows in his retro-comfy sex pad.
But when the cryobank calls, he gives up his anonymity and agrees to meet with Joni and Laser, who leave with very different impressions of their genetic father. Although Laser initiated the proceedings, he’s conflicted. Father and son bare little resemblance, and neither share many interests. Joni, on the other hand, is smitten. This is “Dad,” and her biology needs a completeness, even if it’s only as closure. Paul is weird and interesting; Joni totally enthralled with this poetic vagabond and his easygoing self-assurance.
Nic and Jules find out about the meet-and-greet, and are none too happy. They are patient and understanding “ Jules more so “ and eventually, Nic relents, allowing the children to make Paul an occasional companion. The two moms decide it’d be best if they made friends with Paul, too.
This is, of course, where the layers start stacking up.
“The Kids Are All Right” is messy, complicated and beautiful. It’s real life with jagged edges, mixed feelings and raw emotions. Director Lisa Cholodenko (“Laurel Canyon”) couldn’t have done a better job of framing the confusion and irrationality of marriage, and coaxing the film’s five, wonderfully uneven characters.
Bening and Moore are realistic in both their portrayal of a married couple, and as lesbians. Cholodenko deftly explores the similarities with traditional couples, and the unique dynamics brought by a long-term partnership between two women. It’s honest, but not at all heavy-handed. One particular scene highlighting Nic and Jules’ naughty “ and not so unusual, I’m told “ porn penchant is particularly hysterical.
Ruffalo is great at capturing an indulgent, suspended adolescent-meets-midlife crisis. He’s done everything he’s wanted to do, and done just fine for himself. But in doing so, Paul has very little beyond himself.
There’s a lot at work here: biological drives, gender roles, guilt and forgiveness, and modern child-rearing.
Whether growing up is a measure of nature or nurture, “The Kids Are All Right” makes a case that it’s both simultaneously, and argues that you can’t really love someone without the capacity to hurt them truly.