Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

Directed by: Lisa Cholodenko
Written by: Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg
Produced by: Gary Gilbert, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Celine Rattray, Jordan Horowitz, Daniela Taplin Lundberg & Philippe Hellmann
Released by: Focus Features
U.S. 106 min. Rated R
With: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson & Yaya DaCosta

The last summer at home before college is usually seen in movies as a rite of passage from the point of view of the younger generation pulling away with anticipation and trepidation (even from their toys in Toy Story 3). The Kids Are All Right touchingly and amusingly treats this transition as just as fraught for the parents and younger siblings.

It just happens that this California family is a bit complicated because they have two moms. Their kids are no more embarrassed by them than other teenagers are by their heterosexual parents. For their daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska who showed she can touch hearts in HBO's In Treatment) turning eighteen also means she is legally eligible to seek the identity of her sperm donor. Her 15-year-old brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson, who even as a younger child actor was so good playing more exuberant boys in Little Manhattan and Zathura) uses her impending departure to guilt her into reluctantly contacting him. The donor daddy adds an emotional wild card to the family dynamics during a stressful summer.

Director Lisa Cholodenko co-wrote the screenplay with Stuart Blumberg (scripter of Keeping the Faith and The Girl Next Door) and in interviews they say their intent was to balance her indie angst with his mainstream Hollywood sensibilities to make an accessible film around universal themes. The casting goes a long way to help achieve their goals to surmount plot coincidences and sentimentality as the kids and their mothers forge tentative overlapping triangles with the biological father.

The two moms are Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore). As a high-powered gynecologist, Nic has been the steady breadwinner in the family. (The couple met in the E.R.) Each of Cholodenko's previous films have featured a Queen Bee who sucks the oxygen out of a room (High Art, Laurel Canyon, and Cavedweller), but Bening's bully broad is comparatively less viperous and the most sympathetic. Tippling big glasses of red wine, she constantly belittles her partner's failed careers from architect to Balinese furniture importer and new idea to be a landscaper.

Jules's career has been interrupted as the stay-at-home mom who has lived timidly in the wake of a successful partner. Moore starts out portraying Jules like her stiff, husky-voiced lesbian lover in The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee, but, in a role that was written for her, she quickly settles into a poignant portrait of a vulnerable woman experimenting with climbing out of an anticipated empty nest in surprising ways. So when she heats up the bed with Paul the sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo), her behavior manages to be less a sitcom contrivance or a demonstration of the fluidity of the gender orientation spectrum than a personal cri de curious coeur of frustration in a mid-life crisis.

In pointed contrast to the lesbian household (complete with funny twists on gay porn), Paul is a rugged male barbeque griller. A college dropout hound dog with his much younger friend-with-benefits Tanya (the beautiful Yaya DaCosta), Paul not only owns a restaurant, he grows his own PC local produce on his nearby farm. This literal earthiness comes close to heavy-handed symbolism, but helps to bring him together with Jules when he agrees to be her first client as she turns his backyard into a lush, fecund garden. The discovery of the fruits of his youthful sperm donations for cash has also set him feeling his age to experiment with the fantasy of committed family stability, even if he has to borrow Jules and her family to try it on and see how it fits.

Complementing the lovely look of the cinematography on traditional 35 mm film stock, music is neatly incorporated, as in Cholodenko's earlier films. After Nic rhapsodizes over the significance of Joni Mitchell's Blue album in her life, and identifies her as the woman for whom their daughter was named, her discovery of infidelity plays out against the lyrics of "All I Want". (The song even holds a clue: "I want to talk to you, I want to shampoo you.")

A bit too cute is the side story of the moms trying to glean their son's sexual orientation as clumsily as any liberal heterosexual upper middle class couple. Paul's tries at Field of Dreams-like catch awkwardly avoid a resolution about whether a boy needs a father figure who is a fifth wheel in the family.

There's shouting, tears, hugs, and suspenseful questions of forgiveness and reconciliation right up to the moment when the family car is unpacked at the college dormitory. Just like any people in a long-lived relationship who are taking the next big step together into growing up.

June 28, 2010

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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