Oscar bait is as Oscar bait does. Although The Kids Are All Right premiered earlier in the year, it has the tone, feel and rhythm of a film angling for lots of shiny awards. That calculated quality trips it up more than once… making it stodgier and less engaging than it clearly wants to be. The slice-of-21st-century-life story hangs together well enough and one doesn’t regret watching it. But somehow, I don’t think anyone will remember it this time next year. Hit the jump for the full review.
You can certainly see what attracted the cast to it. The Kids are All Right centers around a lesbian couple—upright doctor Nic (Annette Bening) and her flaky artist wife Jules (Julianne Moore). They have a pair of kids (one daughter, one son) through artificial insemination and all seems well… until their boy (Josh Hutcherson) becomes curious about his biological father and convinces his sister (Mia Wasikowska) to help him track the man down. Said man provides the film’s central complication: an amiable flake who runs an organic restaurant and wanders good-naturedly from one relationship to another. He’s played by Mark Ruffalo in one of those easy-going turns that he habitually knocks out of the park. Meeting the kids awakens a something within him, and he quickly bonds with the family… inadvertently disrupting their established routine in the process.
The bulk of the film covers his growing participation in their circle and the way it changes them for both the better and the worse. It bears its most substantive fruit with Bening and Moore: their characters have grown so familiar with each other that their various prickly bits no longer bother them… until Ruffalo arrives and inadvertently sets them off. Director Lisa Cholodenko oils their friction with plenty of humor, but also allows the two actresses free range to develop their characters appropriately. The results feel thoughtful and real, driven by personality and motivation rather than the contrivances of plot. That, in and of itself makes for some interesting viewing, and while nobody here has any business vying for Natalie Portman’s Oscar, they still remind you of what good actors can do with the right material.
Having said that, The Kids Are All Right demonstrates little beyond the strength of the performances to keep us engaged. The lesbian relationship feels authentic, but also like a bit of a stunt: a way to disguise how mundane the material would be if it involved a straight couple instead. We sense the reality of the proceedings, but the characters rarely compel us the way they should. The filmmakers’ conceits separate us from them inordinately, too busy telling us how truthful their situation is to actually show us that reality. Instead, we get a highly polished theatrical exercise: interesting from a technical aspect, but devoid of the pulse and soul to bring it to life.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In a year as strapped for quality filmmaking as this one, something like The Kids Are All Right shines like a beacon, not because of how far it climbs but how low its competitors sink. Those who prefer human interaction to soulless special effects will appreciate it, and I have no doubt it will scoop up its share of awards. But every year produces efforts like this: their respectability becomes a shield to hide them from their basically disposable nature. It covers up for the fact that they remain no more profound or insightful than the average summer shoot ‘em up. Theirs is simply a more upscale form of disposability: easy to praise initially, but harder to actually sit down to more than once. There’s nothing wrong with that so long as you keep it in perspective. The Kids Are All Right aptly demonstrates both the advantages and the pitfalls of its chosen format.