The Kids Are All Right is the latest of the current batch of American artificial insemination comedies, following closely on from The Switch and The Back-Up Plan. This new one, however, has got much more critical attention since its premiere at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. This is probably due to its arthouse and independent credentials as it remains questionable whether it’s marking out has anything to do with its quality.
Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a couple with two loving children, Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) and a nice, suburban house. Their family may seem unconventional, but it functions just like any other family. The balance is upset with the arrival of the kids’ sperm donor father Paul (Mark Ruffalo) after Joni and Laser contact him behind their parents' back. Things get more complicated, the trials of marriage offsetting the cosy domesticity of Nic and Jules’ lives.
The performances are all uniformly believable with the camera remaining trained on its actors, observing their uncomfortable glances and nervous twitches. A lot of the focus of the film is based on achieving an authenticity. The characters are seen as real, with lives that expand above and beyond the tight narrative frame, that of the threatened and reasserted family values. Characters fall out with friends or talk at length about music or local food without progressing the story one notch. Lisa Cholodenko (who also directs) and Stuart Blumberg write clever dialogue that doesn’t feel forced and present characters that seem to drive the story independently of whatever plot machinations Cholodenko or Blumberg may throw in their path. It is clear that The Kids Are All Right is a film with a lot of talent behind it.
So why does it not work? The characters work and the things they say fit who they are. The film itself remains oddly cold and uninteresting. It leaves many of its best scenes too early, taking on the veneer of an edited highlights compilation of embarrassing moments. It takes a lot of effort to convince you that its character might exist but doesn’t really allow you to spend time with them. We end up watching them through a microscope, observing from a distance rather than being there with them. This distance may or may not have something to do with the politics of the filmmakers. They seem much more interested in making ‘important’ points as if they are arguing with us, trying to convince us that, yes, the kids are all right. It may be a gross simplification, but I can’t help but think that the film is preaching to the converted as, after all, its audience are people who actively chose to go and see an LGBT-themed film.
Matters are not helped by the film’s decline into melodrama in its final third. Here, the characters become the vehicles to drive the tired plot forward. Their actions and conversations seem less organic. While the typical acoustic guitar strings twang, the American indie movie’s method of telling us that we should be feeling sad, things get rather boring. You get the film’s message early on, but it is not above reminding you about it or making damn sure you didn’t miss it the first time round. It is a film with a progressive message (families are families no matter what shape or form) but with an overtly didactic execution. If, in the end, it seems worth getting worked up about, it is a rather frustrating film for exactly what it gets right.
Politics and cinema are uneasy bedfellows. When it works, it really works but when it doesn’t it makes for some patronising films. The Kids Are All Right doesn’t want to charm or entertain, it wants to change opinions and spark debate. But rather than intrigued hums and ahs, it will more likely be met with duh’s and yawns. A film that thinks it is more controversial than it really is.