I decided early on while watching writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right what I thought needed to be done differently to make it a better film. Or at least, one of the things that needed to be done differently. It may have kept me from enjoying parts of the movie as much because I was hung up on this one quibble: the movie would have benefited greatly from more long shots.
To be honest with you, I didn’t have a lot of positive things to say about the movie immediately after leaving the theater. It was a good movie, sure, and fun, but does it deserve the 96% rating is currently has on RottenTomatoes? Certainly not. The story is about a pair of children who defy their lesbian mothers by reaching out to the sperm donor who, um, helped to, um, who helped them to be born. The donor (Ruffalo) turns out to be a pretty nice guy and a semi-successful restaurant owner. The kids begin to build a relationship with him. And then the moms begin to build a relationship with him, and it is in the dynamics of this group that the movie’s drama lies. With that in mind, perhaps it’s not difficult to see where the movie could come off as breezy and light. The events that occur in the movie seldom reach out of the screen in order to affect the viewer. One of the major plot lines involves the daughter Joni’s attitude regarding the strict rules of her mother Nic (Bening). The back-and-forth of their struggle does not resonate, or at least did not with this viewer.
Which brings me back to the long shots. Despite scenarios that were not always able to capture my attention, the film is populated with some pretty amazing actors. The three principals especially – Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo – are all fabulous in their roles. It was at a lunch scene early on in the film when the three actors were interacting that I realized the trouble. We are supposed to watch as this new character Paul, the father, is introduced to this family and all we are required to do here is view their interactions. How does Paul, who has already met the children before, handle meeting with their lesbian mothers? How do the moms react to Paul? How do they behave around one another, around their children? Because the actors are so outstanding, we can sense the changing mood of the luncheon entirely by watching the way they look at one another, the way they hold themselves. But each character is shot in a close-up when he or she is talking. The furthest away we get is a shot of both Nic and Jules (Moore) sitting together – that’s all. It reminds us too much that we are watching the actors. If we could see it all play out from a distance, where it could appear more that the conversations were actually taking place, I strongly believe it would have made a better movie. Instead of focusing on Mark Ruffalo stuttering and fidgeting, let the astute viewer notice that while watching the entire gathering.
Which isn’t to say that the movie fails entirely because of this mistake. There are many other moments that are breathtaking. A dinner scene later in the movie is pretty much perfect from beginning to end, capturing the many different moods at play between the different characters extraordinarily. And yes, a lot of the moments between Nic and Jules when they are alone, just sitting on the couch watching a movie and talking with one another – those are the greatest moments. They act like a real couple, with their own troubles and history, sure, but still happy just being together. Those sorts of small wonders make the film a joyful experience, despite the sometimes painful twists of the story.
Jim Emerson was particularly enthralled with the film, noting that “nobody’s a villain and nobody’s a saint, they’re just nuanced characters, beautifully played.” I wondered after the movie was finished what the title meant. Now I think I’m starting to understand. We all make decisions we regret sometimes, but the fact that the characters in the film sometimes make bad decisions does not make them bad people. The children in the film, Joni and Laser, are plunged into some pretty heavy situations. But they’re mature enough to understand these things, that psychology and sexuality and community – it’s complicated. But they can accept it and understand it and learn from it and move on.
I’ve kind of talked myself toward a higher rating. There are some truly exquisite things about The Kids Are All Right, but there’s a lot of useless meandering too. A lot of Paul’s scenes outside of the family unit don’t feel vital to the film. But the things the movie does well, it does very well. I definitely really liked this film.