by Margaux Williamson
(I saw this in the middle of a very long train trip headed north. My boyfriend picked it out. We watched it on his laptop with separate headphones. The little boy next to us was watching Spider Man without headphones. I didn’t realize till just before we started watching it that the director was Lisa Cholodenko. I had seen two of her other movies High Art and Laurel Canyon and never would have guessed this was hers. We both laughed a lot. The movie was what you hope a Hollywood/ independent/ intelligent drama could be, but rarely is – incredibly good and not dumb. )
The Kids Are All Right is about a sort-of-happy family with two moms, one teenage son and one teenage daughter. The son becomes curious about his and his sister’s sperm donor (each of the moms gave birth but the same donor was used in both cases). Together, the kids contact the sperm donor. This is done secretly so that they don’t hurt their moms’ feelings. The Sperm donor (Paul played by Mark Ruffalo) is handsome and charming and is a soft-spoken ladies’ man. He owns a fancy restaurant, rides a motorcycle and dates young earthy women with tank tops. The kids aren’t sure if they like him or not but he starts coming to family dinner.
His presence slightly alters the dynamic of the family, in some ways really positively, empowering some family members, but also threatens the position for the more controlling mom (Nic played by Annette Bening). The more laid-back mom (Jules played by Julianne Moore) abruptly kisses Paul one day after he hires her to do some landscaping in his backyard. He kisses her back. As the days go on, there is much sex, and much understated bemusement and also troubled bemusement. After one sex incident Jules exclaims – “What is WRONG with me?!?”
It is more mundane subject matter than the mysteries-of-making-art and woman-rock-stars of Lisa Cholodenko’s other movies, High Art and Laurel Canyon (where there is much seductive yearning for things just-out-of-reach – like sex & mentoring from complicated women, or professional success in the arts), but all three movies are pretty straightforward narratives.
What makes The Kids Are All Right weirder and weightier is that it has something unusual to say. The movie builds and communicates the idea that marriage is a strong institution – like a pyramid.
After the affair is revealed to the whole family in a tumultuous instant, Paul and Jules have a private conversation on their cell phones. They are both outside because they live in California. He takes a breath and then takes a big leap (maybe the biggest of his life) – “Let’s do this. Let’s make a go of this.. now that it’s out in the open”.
Jules’ face moves in a spasm between incredulity and exasperation. I don’t remember what she said first – “I’m married!!!” or – “I’m a lesbian!!!”, but she hung up the phone after one of them. He had had no idea what he was up against. Neither did we really. We are used to marriages in movies being more like straw houses, and the people who blow them down – more like wolves.
With Jules’ declarations to Paul of commitments and sexual orientation (and everything that came before them in the movie), marriage suddenly looked like a heavy, intricate object – a thing complicated and structurally sound, with an agreed upon contract that allows construction and maintenance to take place over good and bad times, something difficult but that can ideally change shape, something that can’t be so easily be knocked down.
Paul got locked out of the house and it was hard not to feel for him – especially here in this movie where all the characters were complicated. The people inside the house were miserable, but they were warm and they would recover.