Friday 29 October 2010

Who's your daddy?: "The Kids Are All Right"

Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right would appear, on the surface, a film designed to allow leader writers and columnists to spout off on the subject of contemporary parenting: its central characters are a lesbian couple whose teenage offspring go in search of the sperm donor responsible for their very existence. Yet for a watercooler analysis of the family unit, it proves, in form as in content, surprisingly conventional; more so than, say, Showtime's Weeds or even network television's Modern Family. One of the recurring gags Cholodenko and her co-writer Stuart Blumberg give us involves the characters' acute embarrassment upon being discovered watching gay porn, and it may be a sign of the times that such material now feels no more transgressive in its context than an average bit in a American Pie or Judd Apatow comedy.

The couple in question are doctor Nic (Annette Bening) and aspirant landscape gardener Jules (Julianne Moore). The former's brittle and take-charge, quick to judge and find offence, forever performing a sort of mental triage. (We quickly gather she's the one in this household who, in all senses, pays the bills.) The latter's more open to those around her, a drifter, a giver; her catchphrase is "Is there something you want to talk about?" Together, they make rather a good pair. The long-established boundaries of the couple's relationship are, however, about to be tested: the pair's inquisitive offspring - the college-age Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and the strapping 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) - have just discovered the identity of their hitherto anonymous birth father.

This guy proves about as male as they, erm, come: he's Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a tan organic farmer with his own motorbike, restaurant business, and drawl. If the kids initially prove split on Paul's charms, so too are their moms when they find out. While Nic, predictably, resists this interloper's easy appeal, Jules - whom we've already heard giving a speech about the reasons those whose desires are largely internalised might like to check out a penis from time to time - ends up first tending his vegetable patch, and later his marrow, dirtying her hands in more ways than one. Soil, indeed, proves an essential component to a tale examining the ways in which we grow, as grown-ups and children alike: Jules ends one tiff with Nic with the priceless line "I think we should start composting", and I was struck by these partners' repeated deployment of the pejorative "grubby" (as in "grubby bitches"), particularly as all the leads are generally about as well-scrubbed as they come.

The Kids Are All Right is defined by this post-PC cleanness, or niceness. There's very little in the way of outright antagonism - these characters are too passive-aggressive for that - and we're encouraged to read Nic's controlling tendencies as admirable, in conjunction with her partner's substantially less controlled flakiness. There's only one real shock in the film, and that's when we see the family unit enthusiastically devouring barbequed hamburgers and hotdogs; given the progressive nature of this household, you'd have sworn red meat would have been well and truly off the menu. (Perhaps it was Quorn.) The question, going forwards, is whether the sheer, sunny Californian pleasantness of it all - the amenable climate of so much sitcom and soap opera - is intended to sneak something radical into the multiplexes, or aimed at helping us get past a general lack of bite.

What's unquestionable is that the film is very appealingly played, and at its most successful in its depiction of a loving (same-sex) couple. We may now expect Bening, who's become pickier with experience, to be this honed, this cherishably prickly, from her haircut on down, but she also has an appreciable effect upon her co-star: Moore's comic timing, an occasional liability, hasn't been this on point in years. If there's any appreciable conflict in Kids, it lies in the contrast between these two sharp knives and the trademark, sloth-like rhythms of Ruffalo as the kind of heterosexual male who, in all likelihood, couldn't be fussed either way. (We spot as much in the way Paul comes to neglect, and then discard his on-off fuckbuddy, played by the unutterably gorgeous African-American actress Yaya DaCosta - a piece of casting brilliance that might get even Nick Griffin to reconsider his stance on mixed-race relationships.) The bounding Hutcherson and more sensitive Wasikowska are very bright, too, characterised in terms of pure curiosity, where a cruder film would have reduced them to bags of hormones.

Sure enough, it all slips down easier than one of Paul's organic smoothies - but I did begin to wonder where the pith might have gone. Every time Cholodenko and Blumberg seem inclined to lampoon the, shall we say, hempier excesses of their characters' too-good-to-be-true lifestyle, the film regathers itself, pulling in close for another hug or impromptu Joni Mitchell rendition. Even Laser's name is taken for a progressive given. Between the emphasis on homes and gardens, the last-reel road trip to secure family ties, the somewhat quizzical approach to any domestics who happen to stumble into this (DaCosta aside) all-white milieu, this selectively accepting comedy feels no more profound a statement on human desire than It's Complicated or Spanglish. And I wonder if that poses a question worthy of a leader piece in itself: does the film feel conventional because that's what it at heart is, or does it feel conventional because these are the enlightened times we're living in?

The Kids Are All Right opens in selected cinemas today.

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