"You're an interloper," says Nic (Annette Bening) to Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the recently discovered sperm donor for the two teenage children she shares with her partner, Jules (Julianne Moore) in The Kids Are All Right. It's an interesting choice of words—"interloper"—but not one that seems at all surprising coming from filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko. In fact, she seems inordinately fond of the concept.
In her work as both writer and director (High Art, Laurel Canyon), Cholodenko appears to have exactly one dramatic scenario up her sleeve—the pansexual fallout that ensues when a seemingly happy couple's relationship is exposed to a charismatic ... well, interloper. The Kids Are All Right is a fairly satisfying family comedy-drama that could have provided a break from that theme—and it's only because Cholodenko seems so attached to it that the film misses a chance to be something special.
Cholodenko does a fine job of establishing the domestic normalcy of the two-mommies Southern California household headed by Nic, a Type A OB-GYN, and Jules, a less grounded sort working on her latest career change. They nag recent high school graduate Joni (Alice in Wonderland's Mia Wasikowska) about sending thank-you notes; they worry about 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) spending too much time with a friend they don't like; and they bicker with each other like any 20-years-together couple. So it's a disruption to the routine when Laser decides he wants to meet the guy who provided half his genes, which the now 18-year-old Joni can help facilitate. And Paul—a locavore restaurateur with a hippie-dippie streak—is just the kind of guy who can mix things up a little.
Cholodenko kicks things off with a more humorous touch than usual, with mixed results. For every sly, subtle line of dialogue, there's an improbably farcical moment like Nic and Jules' night of sex being interrupted by a blast of high volume from the gay porn movie they're watching, or that tired standby, the cut immediately from someone saying "We should never do [fill in the blank] again," to them doing [fill in the blank].
Three terrific lead performances elevate the material. Bening plays in some ways the most thankless part—the uptight matriarch—with enough twists and turns that she feels like a fresh creation; Moore takes what amounts to a standard midlife crisis character arc as she begins an affair with Paul and gives it a sparkle of intelligence. Best of all is Ruffalo, who feels utterly natural and complex as an untethered guy who thinks he can find his place easily in this ready-made family.
It's pretty telling, however, that despite the fact that the movie is called The Kids Are All Right, we haven't spent much time talking about the kids. The Kids Are All Right screams for the focus of the story to be on whether a father figure is something Joni and Laser really need or just think they need—and Cholodenko ultimately doesn't seem all that interested in them.
Or, perhaps more to the point, she's just more interested in Nic and Jules. The Kids Are All Right may be Cholodenko's attempt to show that the bumps and bruises of a gay marriage are just like those in a straight marriage, but that only means she's telling too familiar a story. It's hard to tell from The Kids Are All Right whether the kids are all right, since when it comes to Cholodenko's preferred narrative, they're interlopers, too.