The Allgoods are a close family experiencing life's typical ups and downs: 18-year old daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) is heading off to Stanford University and starting to distance herself from her parents; 14-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is hanging out with a deadbeat friend who constantly leads him into trouble. The only difference is that this family has two mums. Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) have been together for years, deeply in love, and had both children through artificial insemination.

This loving but strained home life is thrown into comic disarray when the kids track down their biological donor Dad, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), and invite him home for dinner. Paul is a bachelor whose sudden longing for a family introduces an interesting sexual dynamic to the not-quite-ordinary equation of the Allgoods. At first Joni is so happy to have a cool, handsome dad like Paul. But soon enough she comes to realise that Paul is fun-loving but lacks self-control: and chaos reigns.

A contemporary family tale that cuts through the cliché.

At first it appeared that Los Angeles would defeat Lisa Cholodenko. Having made her feature debut in 1998 with the magisterially still High Art, a New York-set tale that documented the transference between ambition and desire, the writer-director decamped for Los Angeles, where sheer space of the city appeared to derail her 2002 feature, Laurel Canyon. It was like a Woody Allen riff come true: the gifted New York artist goes west and loses her edge; the talented ensemble cast in Laurel Canyon never felt like more than easily sketched characters.

Credit her perseverance, because eight years on, via some small screen assignments, Cholodenko has co-written, with Stuart Blumberg, and directed a picture that has the juicy openness and harried decisions the city deserves. The partly autobiographical The Kids Are All Right inhabits Los Angeles in a way that Laurel Canyon never did – it has an appreciation of the city’s light, especially around dusk, and the subtle cultural mores that exist beneath the cliches.

It also feels the city’s cinematic history: when he arrives on a motorcycle, ambling from machine towards a family home that can never be his, Paul (Mark Ruffalo) could be Warren Beatty in Shampoo. A shaggy, libidinous restaurant owner, Paul goes with the flow – his sentences invariably end on a note of positive agreement such as 'yeah", 'cool story", or 'yeah, cool story". At some point in the early 1990s Paul donated sperm, a decision that sees him contacted by two children he fathered, 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson).

Agreeing to meet them, Paul’s intrigued but not wary; you realise he’s never borne responsibility for another person, let along two teenagers. He’s a lightning rod for the Californian family – mum, mum, sister and brother – that he comes upon. Driven doctor Nic (Annette Bening) and the more laidback, career-less Jules (Julianne Moore) each had a child with Paul’s help (Joni and Laser respectively), and they’re as divided on their children contacting him as they are on most issues.

The mainstream screen novelty of a lesbian couple lasts all of five minuets in The Kids Are All Right. Apart from bemused references by the siblings to 'the mums", sexuality isn’t the crucial element in this finely honed family tale. It could have been two dads and a female interloper and played out much the same, because Cholodenko gets at primal instincts and urges – losing a long time partner’s love, the onset of conservatism with domesticity, and the need for excitement overwhelming common sense – that could apply to any family unit.

Cholodenko layers scene upon scene, never signposting where the story is heading, but allowing the narrative to tug like a current. At first it works upon the children, with Laser finally standing up to his Beavis-like buddy Clay (Eddie Hassell) because he has a stronger male influence in his life, while the bookish Joni simply blooms under Paul’s non-judgmental gaze. Played by Ruffalo with his typical detachment that doesn’t preclude a sexual edge, Paul is initially good for a family that is locked down by routine and expectation, but he’s charming enough that his mistakes don’t register with you or him until it’s too late.

Makers of lesser domestic dramas feel they must push the envelope, trying to find resonance in grand suburban dilemmas, but Cholodenko doesn’t ask too much of her characters or audience. Some of the ideas are boilerplate, such as Nic’s predilection for wine, but the situation is played with such genuine ease and warmth that it feels right. Because they register as a genuine family, even the smallest ruction registers with you, and by the time Paul has departed as deeper bonds are reasserted the ructions are anything but minor.

The Kids Are All Right gets at basic, underlying truths, and opens them up with both sly humour and brittle neediness. Lisa Cholodenko has found her home.


Watch 'The Kids Are All Right'

Saturday 6 March, 8:30pm on SBS World Movies / Now streaming at SBS On Demand

USA, 2010

Genre: Comedy, Drama
Language: English
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Starring: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska 

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