Rated: R. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. 3.5 stars.
It might take a little time for mainstream audiences to adjust to the family at the center of "The Kids Are All Right," headed by long-married lesbian couple Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore).
Their teenage children Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson) casually refer to them as "the Momses" and have to fend off two sets of outstretched arms when begged for a hug. But director and co-writer Lisa Cholodenko's easy portrayal of domestic life quickly dissolves any sense that this family is "different" — because, really, they're just as loving, annoying, absurd and dysfunctional as everyone else.
"The Kids Are All Right" moves us beyond the more outrageous, gay-themed comedies of the 1990s and 2000s, which often dealt with discovering and accepting one's sexual identity, to a more self-assured reality that reflects the family lives that many gays and lesbians have since settled into. Nic and Jules show us how it's done, but — as we should all know by now — there's no such thing as a perfect family.
The couple gets their wake-up call when 15-year-old Laser convinces his 18-year-old sister Joni to locate their sperm donor dad. When they find and befriend Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a motorcycle-riding, perennial bachelor, the familial rock gets jostled and some long-simmering resentments and disappointments emerge, destabilizing Nic and Jules' relationship and their tightly knit family.
It's understandable why the kids want to know about their biological father; they're at the age when most kids begin carving out their own identities, and knowing where you come from is a big part of that. This is especially true for Laser, who's already acting out his angst by hanging out with a destructive neighborhood kid. Paul is everything the Momses aren't — freewheeling, laid-back, unconcerned, distinctly male — and Laser and Joni begin spending more time with him. Paul, surprised by how much he enjoys his new fatherly role, is happy to oblige.
At first, Nic and Jules want Paul to just go away. But as modern parents, they try to respect their kids' desires and do their best to get to know him. Paul's "who cares" attitude really rubs Nic the wrong way, giving Bening many delightful chances to strut her comedic stuff. But the more insecure Jules is drawn to Paul's openness and noncritical nature, and as he insinuates himself more into their lives, the weak spots in Nic and Jules' relationship become all the more apparent.
With the exception of the emotionally shallow Paul, Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg have created beautifully complex characters. At first you might identify with Jules, wilting under Nic's attempts to control and criticize. Or perhaps you'll roll your eyes at Jules' passivity and flakiness. But as Bening's and Moore's layered performances guide us through each scene (occasionally burdened with cliche dialogue and a few too many confrontations that resolve themselves with a simple expletive), your loyalties will shift and bend. In a film without many tricks up its sleeve, that's an impressive feat — especially since you're laughing along the way.
Even the teenagers transcend the easy stereotypes. Wasikowska beautifully executes Joni's transition from an overachieving, obedient teenager to an independent-minded young woman, while Hutcherson's understated performance reveals Laser's quiet angst and confusion. These kids are not accessories to the story — but the reason for it.
And that's the beauty of "The Kids Are All Right." Cholodenko has not delivered a pro-gay marriage treatise, but a funny, touching and relatable story about the colossal effort and love it takes to create and maintain a family.