E: Nic and Jules worry about their kids. Is brilliant, long haired Joanie, literally the golden child, too serious? Is Laser gay and not telling them? He’s attached at the hip to skater boy Clay, who looks like a bad influence. Are they lovers? Naw. Clay’s just lazy, risk-taking, and introducing their son to cocaine.
You can tell the family is a little crunchy just from the names; Joanie, after Joanie Mitchell, and Laser, after, well, a laser, presumably. Nick’s a doctor, and Jules trained to be an architect, but she’s been having a little trouble, as they say, figuring out how to be her best actualized self. Her most recent project – landscape design – is experiencing a few hiccups. Nic’s supportive, but also a little, well, judgey. And she really liked her wine. Jules might be a bit over sensitive about her lack of actualized potential. Still, they’re pretty happy people. They have their little issues, but generally, they’re just gliding along, basking in the California sunshine.
And then Laser talks Joanie into finding their biological father. Which is to say, sperm donor. What, did I not mention that Nic and Jules are women?
When Jules and Nick picked a young college student out of a catalog, they loved his ambition and interests. So when Joanie – on the sly – gets his name from the donor bank, a casual farmer and restauranteur isn’t exactly what their mothers expected them to find. Joanie pretends interest in the local foods movement, and Laser is immediately drawn to Paul’s laid back attitude. At first Paul is, not surprisingly, floored to find he has not only one but two children; soon enough, however, he’s beguiled not merely by his children but by the road not taken that they represent. Maybe he’s ready to grow up. Maybe they can grow together into a nontradition family. Maybe this new thing is comfortable and exciting for everyone.
But then things get a little too exciting.
I’m trying, and failing, to think of a movie where the title was so prescriptive. Though it feels like the story of the mothers, like the story of a family, the point is clear. These parents have done a good job, and their kids – despite the troubles during the film – are going to be fine. Will they continue a relationship with their biological Dad? Laser figures out that Clay’s bad news on his own. Joanie works out her crush with no intervention whatesoever.
And the journey is largely a pleasant one. I howled in the scene where the two mothers are forced to explain to their son why they have an illicit collection of gay male porn. And then there’s the point when one apologizes to the other for not being her most actualized self. It’s so deliciously California, with it’s local farming and drawling speech patterns; there was a point where Mark Ruffalo replied “no doubt!” to someone’s comment, and I could hear my Californian cousins saying it, clear as a bell. It was uncanny. The performances are lovely – of course Moore, Ruffalo and Bening excel in the lead roles, but Mia Wasikowska of Alice in Wonderland is a charming, ethereal presence as Joanie. Josh Hutcherson manages to play apathetic without being a snooze, and I do really enjoy America’s Next Top Model alum Yaya DaCosta as Paul’s employee and casual partner Tanya; she was good in a small role in last year’s wonderful film The Messenger, too. Who’d have thunk it? I liked the gentle humor of this movie. I liked the characters. It was really nicely peopled.
I’m not sure, really, why Annette Bening, in a subtle, naturalistic performance as Nic, has been receiving the lion’s share of attention for this nicely acted film; Julianne Moore, as Jules, is just as good. And yet for all that, poor Annette; why is it you’re always up against a young phenom? Lots of people get nominated for Oscar with no chance of winning, and in some ways that’s got to be nice. Twice in her previous three nominations, Bening started out as the front runner and ended as the also ran, both times to Hilary Swank. Wonderful as it may be for Bening that Swank’s 2010 offering, Conviction, underperformed despite good reviews, there’s still Natalie Portman as the Black Swan to steal Bening’s thunder. The two roles are fascinatingly distinct; Portman’s work is Acting with a capital A, all bells and whistles including learning to dance well enough to portray a prima ballerina on screen, a pretty astounding feet. Nic’s a far less fraught character, and last year’s best actor race (Colin Firth is quietly dying, Jeff Bridges is drunk and bombastic) shows us how that kind of show down usually goes. Still, Bening can’t be completely without hope, which may or may not be a good thing. I’d think the evening would be less stressful if you were certain you were going to lose.
I’m thrilled that Mark Ruffalo earned his first nomination for his work as donor Dad Paul. His is my favorite performance in the film. And yes, he’s certain to lose (most likely to Christian Bale in another Acting with a Capital A performance in The Fighter) but that’s okay. It’s an honor to be nominated. The film picked up two other nominations it’s sure to lose as well: Best Picture and Original Screenplay. Still, those are really excellent rewards for a small movie about a lesbian family (not the most obvious of draws, especially when Oscar movies tend to be more male dominated). In January, The Kids Are All Right won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy/Musical. Despite the utter lack of credible competition, this is a nice reminder to audiences and Oscar voters alike that the film really is all right.