The movie looks at an unconventional family that still feels remarkably relatable to just about anyone that's experienced the growing pains of family life. The two women at the center of the film are Nic and Jules, played, and really, inhabited, by two great actresses in Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. Nic and Jules are a lesbian couple who have been together for two decades. They've raised two children together, grown older together, and, despite differing personalities, have stuck together through thick and thin. They are, in many ways, an odd couple. Nic is a micro-manager, a strict parent, an accomplished doctor. Jules is a free spirit, more of a friend to the kids, less uptight. And yet, they seem to have a genuine, caring, layered relationship. Rarely do you see that in a movie, but, here it is. Jules and Nic have two children, and both of the actors playing their kids are nearly as good as the award-winning actresses playing their two moms. Mia Wasikowska is a real standout. Best known as Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Mia plays the prodigal daughter with a lot of nuance, a lot of heart. Her character, Joni (named after Joni Mitchell) is 18 and spending her last summer at home before college. She's smart, dedicated, yet looking to break free and spread her wings. Her younger brother, Laser, is fifteen and getting into trouble. He's a good kid, but has been hanging with a bad crowd. Josh Hutcherson, who plays him, does a great job with his mix of teen angst and youthful energy. Most importantly though, plotwise, is the fact that Laser has developed a longing to seek out his biological father. He and his sister were each a product of one of their two moms, who were both inseminated via the same donor. Without telling their moms, Laser convinces Joni to contact the donor agency and ultimately get in touch with their dad. Their dad turns out to be a guy named Paul, played by Mark Ruffalo. Paul is one of those guys who's so cool and collected and carefree that it's easy to find him offputting. He's a motorcycle-riding, leather-jacket wearing owner of an organic restaurant that grows all of its own ingrediants in an adjacent farm. He's a guy that seems to take everything so in stride that you have to wonder how much of it is genuine and how much of it is bull$%&#. At first, Laser in particular is weary of Paul, but soon enough, his tough-guy-meets-hippy persona wins over the kids, and they begin to bond. And that's where the trouble begins ...
There are some really well done twists and turns in the film, but again, nothing seems too melodramatic, because it's all grounded in well-drawn characters played to perfection by an awesome ensemble of actors. There are moments of real comedy, and real emotion. A lot of the overarching themes here - growing up and going to college / coming of age, settling down vs. living free, two people figuring out whether or not they truly belong together, etc. - these are all things we've seen before. But, these fairly universal themes are handled so well here, with such nuance, humor, and grace, that you can't help but get sucked in. This is one of those movies that could have been really sappy and cloying in lesser hands, but here, it just feels like a slice of life that is relatable on a number of levels. A big problem with movies like this can also be that the movie wants you to sympathize with unsympathetic characters, something which can ultimately be really offputting. Here, all the characters get a fair shake, but the movie also doesn't gloss over their flaws. Mark Ruffallo's character is no saint, and it could have been a fatal flaw had the film spent too much time trying to get us to side with him. Luckily, director / co-writer Lisa Cholodenko seems to really get the characters, and to have a real feel for their strengths and their flaws.
Again, I can't emphasize enough how good the acting is here. Moore, Bening, Ruffallo, and Wasikowska all do some really incredible work. Wasikowska is maybe the most surprising as the soon-to-be-college-freshman Joni. Though she was good in Alice, this to me is her true breakout performance.
Even if you're not typically into this sort of film, I'd still say take a chance and check out The Kids Are All Right. It reminded me a bit of Little Miss Sunshine, in that as the movie went on, it really snuck up on me just how invested I had become in these characters and their lives. Indeed, great characters, a superb script, and top-notch acting make this one of the biggest surprises of the summer, and likely one of the few surefire award-winners so far this year.
My Grade: A-