The Kids Are All Right touches on themes common to a Sam Mendes movie—a family struggling to be normal that ultimately leaves us questioning what a “normal” family looks like or whether it can exist—without being egotistical and overstylized. And, unlike a Mendes movie, it has enough humor to ensure that our entrapment in the small domestic space of the film isn’t utterly painful.
Even as the family at the center of the story—lesbian moms Nic (Annette Benning) and Jules (Julianne Moore), their children Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), and their sperm donor “dad” Paul (Mark Ruffalo)—teeters on the brink of dysfunction and potential disaster, director Lisa Cholodenko provides us moments of comedic respite. Indeed, the tone of the film as a whole is surprisingly funny given the many conflicts that threaten to tear the family apart.
Nic and Jules are one of the most believable and well-rounded lesbian couples I’ve seen on film, and that’s because the film isn’t trying to be a “lesbian movie.” That is, unlike movies marketed expressly as LGBT films, The Kids Are All Right doesn’t rely solely on the novelty of having a homosexual couple at the center to carry the film. This is not a niche movie for lesbians. Nor does it try to deploy lesbianism as just a quirk to make the story more unique. There is a key point at which the film could have gone seriously awry and become just another heterosexist rom-com with lesbianism as an obstacle to be overcome. Fortunately, it avoids the pitfall of this cliché. Instead, Cholodenko gives us characters that are relatable, likable, flawed, and utterly believable.
If I’m focusing a bit too much on the joys of seeing a non-clichéd lesbian couple on screen, that’s because it truly is a rare occurrence and quite a remarkable achievement. The Kids Are All Right not only doesn’t get it wrong, but also gets some small details just right. Joni has an Uh Huh Her poster hanging on her bedroom wall, and a song by Uh Huh Her appears on the soundtrack. I could just be overly geeked about this otherwise inconsequential detail, but the oblique reference to The L Word (Uh Huh Her features Leisha Hailey, who plays Alice in the series) feels like a way of filling out the cultural world the characters inhabit.
Whether or not you come to the film desperate to see a decent portrayal of queer characters on screen, The Kids Are All Right is a moving and funny film about marriage, family, and growing up featuring outstanding performances and smart writing.