I want to talk to you, I want to shampoo you.
I want to renew you again and again.
Applause, applause: life is our cause.
—Joni Mitchell, “All I Want”
Nic (Annette Bening) is a doctor, self-assured, precise, and sharply judgmental. Her partner Jules (Julianne Moore) is different: a stay-at-home mom for years, she’s just bought a pickup truck in hopes of finally starting a landscape design business. Still, she wonders whether she’s ready, especially when Nic begins to question her. They’re both happy-sad their daughter is headed to college, and wonder why their 15-year-old son is spending so much time with his bully of a best friend. At the start of The Kids are All Right, the family’s dinner table conversation is a mix of trust and mild tensions indicated by glances: their routine is prone to shifting.
Part of that routine is watching Locked Up Abroad. It’s a small thing, but telling. As Jules and Nic settle into the sofa, you can see their ease with one another, appreciate their affection for trashy TV. The sweaty-faced prisoner gulps, surrounded by captors in a green jungley frame, a sort of tension image far from their cozy Californian suburbia, a purposeful, if languid, distraction. The couple finds another sort of diversion in their favorite porn tape (“Wanna watch a movie?” begins the seduction). While hard-abbed cops and cruisers jostle for screen space, Jules goes down and Nic works at losing herself, but really, they’re increasingly distracted from their distraction these days. After 20 years together, nighttime is no longer so separate from day.
Nic and Jules aren’t in crisis, only occasionally on edge, and not so much that they actually talk about it. Instead, they worry about the kids. Joni’s (Mia Wasikowska) imminent departure makes them marvel: “Do you believe our baby’s 18?” squeals Nic. “Big girl, big girl, big girl,” she persists, much to Joni’s head-down dismay. Being well read and thoughtful late-boomer parents, Jules and Nic understand that Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is already missing his sister; still, they wonder about the bully, Clay (Eddie Hassell). “What do you get from your relationship with Clay?” Jules asks. Laser doesn’t calculate like that, but now that mom’s asked, you see his wheels begin to whir.
Such whirring is constant in Lisa Cholodenko’s lovely, low-key comedy. As Laser comes to see himself in another way, he becomes aware that his relationships and ideas are pieces of an intricate machine, the way the family works. This machine is pitched into a higher gear when Laser and Joni decide to contact their sperm donor.
Born to one mom each, the kids were both conceived with the same sperm donation. When they meet Paul (Mark Ruffalo), Laser and Joni exchange looks over the table, much as they do with their moms. But they see him differently. For Joni, Paul’s organic food restaurant, motorcycle, and smudgy past (he dropped out school, pursued adventures) seem hazily romantic. Laser’s less impressed. After Paul hears his son is an “amazing athlete,” he reveals that he dropped out of sports too: “The whole team thing got on my nerves after a while,” Paul says. Laser pauses just a breath, then lists the sports he plays: basketball, soccer, baseball, basically, “all the team things.”
Paul’s resistance to the team thing is a point of contention in The Kids Are All Right, but mostly because it reveals everyone else’s resistance too. The moms have built a solid unit, lovingly, carefully, and sometimes, inevitably, accidentally. Their efforts have been earnest, the results excellent (the kids really are all right), but the seams are showing too. Nic drinks too much, and gets mean—more “controlling” and more judgmental—when she does it, which worries Jules and her children.
You can see why Jules avoids confronting her, and turns instead on her employee, Luis (Joaquín Garrido). Feeling cornered and confused by a whole other set of circumstances, Jules blusters about a mistake you know he hasn’t made. (She knows it too, but can’t stop herself, owing to her own guilt and anxieties.) As the camera shows Luis’ view of her, the film also changes perspective, slightly. It’s not that any one view is wrong or right, but that so many of them come together (and also come apart), in this team thing.
The Kids Are All Right dips in and out of perspectives repeatedly. Laser and Joni absorb but don’t feel bound by Paul’s (relatively) fresh outlook, the film suggests he’s appealing as a kind of anti-Nic, vague and eager to please and perceptive (He got into his business, he says, because “I always liked food”; he gave sperm because “I like the idea of helping people.”) That’s not to say he doesn’t make his own assessments: Paul calls Clay a “tool,” advising Laser, “I don’t like the way he was talking to you.” And as each of the family members courts Paul in his or her own way, he begins to rearrange his own life. His rejection of his current girlfriend/employee, Tanya (Yaya DaCosta), is awfully abrupt (especially if you’re her): he wants a family, he says, “I don’t want to be that 50-year-old guy who’s just hanging around.” Her righteous upset gets short shrift here, as she’s more plot device than character, but also underscores Paul’s carelessness, again, so unlike the moms, whose commitments—to one another and their children—are visible in every detail of their lives together, from their dinnerware to their nights with Locked Up Abroad.
But this contrast isn’t as simple as it seems, either. The Kids Are All Right doesn’t set up choices between partners or parents, or even between generations. Instead, as Joni and Laser watch the adults sort out their doubts and desires, and as their long shared views begin to diverge as well, they see themselves more clearly too.