Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

I’m vaguely tempted to say that this film might be just a little too affected, that it has a sort of surgical neatness to it that makes nearly every scene look like an advertisement for Pottery Barn or Food Network. The only dirt in the film seems to hover around Mark Ruffalo, a sperm donor-cum-father figure who could well be reprising his role in You Can Count On Me, if you take that character and cross him with Pig Pen from Peanuts and then add a strong hippie commune-slash-farmers market sensibility.

As a younger man, Paul was a sperm donor, for “sixty bucks a pop,” as he puts it. When asked why he donated, his reasons are, in order: because it was more fun than donating blood, and to help people who could not have kids of their own. He says the first because it’s true, and the second because he feels a certain pressure to give his actions - which resulted in two kids (one of whom poses the question) who want to contact him when they reach their late teens - a sense of nobility and purpose. He’s not quite honest enough to say that it was because he was broke, though we get the sense that this would be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

And quite frankly, it doesn’t really matter what his motivation was, because the story isn’t really about him. It involves him, but it is not about him. Joni and Laser are the two children that his sperm produced. Their moms are Jules and Nic, and the kids are technically half-brother and half-sister, since both Jules and Nic had one child apiece. But the couple raised both kids, and there was no contact with the sperm donor. Until now.

Laser wants to meet his dad because the only male influence on his life is his loser friend Clay and Clay’s loser father. For fun, Clay likes to skateboard off of rooftops and urinate on dogs. Laser understands, in a vague way, that his friend is a loser; but he doesn’t have any non-loser males with which to compare Clay, so he just sort of limps along on his own skateboard until Joni acquires her majority - and with it, the legal right to seek contact with cup-filler who sired her. And if she is only acting as Laser’s proxy when she initiates contact with Paul…well, that doesn’t really matter either. The story isn’t about their motivation for contacting their father.

In fact, the story isn’t really about anything at all. The characters are mostly fully formed as they are introduced, and none of them stray too far from their center as the film progresses. Paul is remarkably laid back for a restaurant owner and organic produce farmer, so it seems natural when he barely stumbles upon finding out that he is a father. He glides effortlessly into the space between responsible father and fun uncle, aided in no small part by Ruffalo’s boyish, “aw, shucks” demeanor. Joni and Laser respond to him more because he is fresh and new to them than because he is the other half of the biological cocktail that resulted in their being. After all, they already have a dad.

Sort of. One of their moms, Nic (Annette Bening), has a lot of stereotypical, though outdated, dad traits - she is the family breadwinner, she is stern and disapproving of a lot of things, she drinks too much. She married the cool, hippie, chronically unemployed longhair - Jules (Julianne Moore) - because Jules flirted with Nic when they first met, which was in some sort of supervisor-subordinate or teacher-student role some years ago. (I admit to journalistic ineptitude here both for having failed to take notes during the film and for having waited over a week to finish writing about it - a week ago, I probably would have remembered the circumstances of their meeting.) Actually, now I think about it, it may have been a doctor-patient situation.

So…opposites attract, strong women raise children, dad is absent but then shows up, and eventually there is drama. Director Lisa Cholodenko isn’t breaking any new ground here, but the point is not to break new ground. The point is to give interesting (if not, perhaps, original) characters a story, insert a conflict, and see how they deal with it - to watch the characters be the characters, to watch them change, to see life through someone else’s eyes. What makes this kind of film work is how the actors act, without the aid of computer-generated special effects, of suspense generated by negative space or a jarring score, or even of the kind of snappy writing that helped turn the trick for films like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine (or Away We Go, if you want to throw a bone to the distributor of The Kids Are All Right).

Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo are more than equal to the task. They have, between the three of them, simply a goofy aggregate of talent (not to mention seven Oscar nominations). I said at the top that I was tempted to say that this film has an overabundance of neatness to it, and I still think that’s true, even a week later; but that neatness allows the audience to see the subtlety of the acting at work, and that’s where this film really hits the mark.

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