From The Parallax Review Vaults: The Kids Are All Right (2010)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of The Kids Are All Right was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

The Kids Are All Right is a good but frustrating movie. On the one hand, it features an honestly original story with some very good acting. On the other hand, co-writer/director Lisa Cholodenko finds it difficult to just get out of the way and let the story play out. It’s not that she’s using unnecessarily flashy camerawork or editing; she just doesn’t seem to trust that the audience is smart enough to understand what she is trying to accomplish. This results in three cringe-inducing monologues that bring the film screeching to a halt.

Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) are longtime partners who have two children. Their oldest, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), is preparing to leave for college, while fifteen-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is a (thankfully non-stereotypical) jock who hangs out with a real jerk of a friend. When Laser and Joni track down and meet their biological father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo playing a slightly more successful version of his irresponsible man-child routine), the family dynamics are shaken up to such a point that none of the characters will ever be the same again.

Cholodenko takes pains to portray the nontraditional family unit as being just as normal as any family with a mother and father. Nic is the stern, uptight parent who is a successful doctor. Jules is the loving wife with hippie leanings who wants to branch out beyond her domestic duties and start a business. Joni and Laser are sweet, intelligent kids who are going through the traditional growing pains involving sex, peer pressure, and growing apart from friends with whom they no longer have much in common.

The early scenes of their routine domestic life are well-acted (especially by Moore), if a little dull. While Nic drinks too much wine and lets the pressures of her job and being a mother take over her life, she ignores Jules’s needs to the point of taking her wife for granted. With the introduction of Paul into the mix, Nic chafes at his ability to bond so quickly with Joni, who has been slowly drifting away. As Paul becomes increasingly present in the lives of the kids, Nic becomes angry and possessive, feeling she’s being replaced in her own family. Meanwhile, Jules, upset with being taken for granted, acts out in ways that surprises even herself. This dynamic works well for the film and makes for very engrossing viewing.

Unfortunately, Cholodenko gives Nic several speeches where she articulates exactly what she is thinking, instead of letting Bening’s bitter take on her character get across her feelings. The same thing happens with Joni and Jules, as they lay out exactly what they are thinking and feeling in prolonged monologues. This is not necessarily a deal breaker as far the film goes. Moore, Bening, and Wasikowska all do excellent work in the film, and they put everything they have into these scenes. Still, with as natural as the dialogue and performances in the rest of the film are, I couldn’t help but feel that, as written, these scenes were the fake kind of emoting that are used for clips at the Oscars.

If not for the need to hit the audience over the head every now and then, The Kids Are All Right could have been a great film. As it is, it’s merely a good one. It’s entertaining, with some emotional honesty and great work by the entire cast. Cholodenko also shows a generous amount of sympathy for all the characters, even when they are making poor decisions that have disastrous consequences not just for them, but the people they love. I just wish the characters had been allowed to tell the story through their own words and actions, instead of resorting to canned speeches when it matters most.

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