Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Kids Are All Right (2010)

10 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, as much as I liked “The Kids Are All Right” upon first viewing, I was irritated by the characters’ codependency the second time around, so much so that I wouldn’t see the film for another 8 years.

Good thing I did, because now that I’m older and understand things more clearly than I did when I was 18 (the age I first saw it in a theater and only saw it because critics were praising it), I recognize the reality of said-codependency and therefore see the film as honest and effective.

“The Kids Are All Right” is an indie dramedy about Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), a same-sex couple who have been together for about 20 years, raising two children who were conceived thanks to an anonymous sperm donor. The two kids are 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Joni is about to leave the nest for college, and Laser pleads for her to do him a little favor before she leaves: try and contact their biological father. She reluctantly does, and the kids meet the guy, who’s a laid-back bohemian named Paul (Mark Ruffalo). They get along well, he’s happy to know them, and they agree to see each other again, but Nic and Jules want to meet him first. Paul’s relationship with the family grows, but as the family dynamic changes, things don’t go as smoothly as they’d like it to…

What makes the film as highly regarded as it is has to do with the script. For one thing, and probably the most important thing, the characterization is terrific. We already get a sense of Nic and Jules’ relationship before we’re even halfway through the film. They’re committed to each other, but it’s clear they’re not who they used to be and that causes a strain in their relationship. They each have careers, which add to the more difficult aspects of daily life–do they still want what they want when they have it? And they also notice little things about each other that they just don’t find attractive, such as Nic’s abrasiveness and condescending attitude, Jules’ micromanaging, that Nic is always busy (which makes sense, as she’s a doctor), and so on. The most telling scene is midway through in which Jules prepares for a romantic evening with Nic, and Nic suddenly becomes busy on the phone with a patient and Jules is left alone in the bathtub. This is what their marriage has become.

(SPOILER ALERT!!!) That’s why it makes sense that she would start an affair with Paul, because she’s finding the passion with him that she used to have with her wife. And of course, that’s not going to end well.

(END OF SPOILER ALERT!!!)

Will their relationship continue after the film is over? Maybe. A lot of couples go through some real rough patches, and they’re still together. Maybe Nic and Jules are too.

Btw, THIS is what I was referring to when I said I grew annoyed by the characters in the second-viewing–little did I know this is just how people in long-lasting relationships tend to behave. (Don’t review movies until you’ve had a little life experience.)

Paul is also a well-rounded character. Despite his business in running his own restaurant and growing his own food, he always ducked certain responsibilities. Now that his two biological children have welcomed him into their lives, he suddenly feels the need to play father-figure. But he does screw up the family dynamic real badly, and I was surprised to find that his resolution isn’t as pleasant as the type of situation would be in other movies–maybe he’ll have learned from this whole ordeal and bettered himself in the future…or he won’t have learned a thing and it just brings him back to where he started. I dunno, I’m sticking with the first thing–I’m an optimist.

Plus, Mark Ruffalo is unbelievably fantastic in this role. From his mannerisms to his quirks to his body language, he inhabits this flawed character…flawlessly.

And the kids are also more than “all right.” Joni’s coming-of-age is one of the more interesting parts of the film, as she says goodbye to everything she’s known, including her family, because she’s ready to move on and go to college away from it all. And Laser (man I’m jealous of that name–why’d I get stuck with “Tanner”*?) is a sensitive jock type who just wants to know what it’s like to have a man (a father) in his life after witnessing the dynamic between his punk friend Clay and his own father. He too comes of age, outgrowing his friendship with Clay and appreciating the parents that he already has.

As honest and realistic as the dialogue between these characters are (and is very well-written by director Lisa Cholodenko and her co-writer Stuart Blumberg), I think what made the script more special was the characters. If you have great characters, they can write most of the story for you.

They’re also very well-acted. Ruffalo and Bening were nominated for their respective performances–why wasn’t Moore? I think of the two lead actresses, Moore as Jules had the more interesting role. (Would that be “Moore interesting role”? Rim-shot!)

“The Kids Are All Right” was heralded as an arthouse treasure and went on to gain Oscar nominations–not just Best Actress (Bening) and Best Supporting Actor (Ruffalo) but also Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. If I didn’t understand why then, I certainly understand why now. It’s an honest character-based drama with something to say about relationships.

*Just kidding, Mom–I love my name.

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