'The Kids Are All Right': The Team Thing

In The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko's lovely comedy about family, routines and perspectives are shifting.

The Kids Are All Right

Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Cast: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson
Rated: R
Studio: Focus Features
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-07-09 (Limited release)
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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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