I hate movie buzz. When a movie has the proverbial "Oscar buzz," it ruins everything: if I haven’t seen the movie yet, it always raises my expectations (even if I try hard not to let it) — so much so that I often walk out of the theater thinking, "Wait. This is the movie that everyone else is going so crazy about?"
So please forgive me if this review of mine raises your expectations of, or contributes to, the deafening buzz surrounding the new lesbian-themed drama The Kids Are All Right, opening in limited release this weekend.
It absolutely lives up to the hype. It’s a flat-out terrific movie, by turns funny, moving, and — most of all — extraordinarily "real."
Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play long-time partners who were both artificially inseminated with the same anonymous donor’s sperm. Now their children are both teenagers (played by Journey to the Center of the Earth‘s Josh Hutcherson and Alice in Wonderland‘s Mia Wasikowska, both flat-out terrific), and when the older turns 18, she makes arrangements for the both of them to meet their biological father, a motorcycle-riding restaurateur (Mark Ruffalo, who is aging really, really well).
After an initially awkward meeting, the characters all slowly begin to incorporate him into their lives in different ways.
And he changes everything.
But they’re all coming at things from very different places: for the kids, Mark Ruffalo’s character is their father. But for him it was just a sperm donation — "more fun that donating blood," he quips early on.
Or is it that simple? As he grows closer to the kids, it awakens his own desire for a family. Meanwhile, as the lesbian mothers sees their children growing closer to their biological dad, they feel threatened — feelings that are compounded by their teenage kids’ long-simmering desire for more independence.
In short, everything in the movie is really, really complicated, just like in life. The scenes of the family together — sniping at each other, undercutting each other, but ultimately loving each other — are amazing in their "realness." Talk about cinema verite! I can’t think the last time I saw such an authentic portrayal of humans interacting together.
As for the plot, almost every single character does something stupid or infuriating at some point, but you, the viewer, can never quite condemn them. You think, "Well, okay, that’s bad, but they had their reasons."
Again, just like in life.
But lest you think this is a heavy drama, it’s not. The situations and reactions are sometimes just slightly exaggerated for comedic effect — and that effect is often very funny, as when Moore’s and Bening’s characters simultaneously open their arms, callings for "Hugs! Hugs!" from their disgusted teenage male son. Or when the movie reveals the real-life "secret" that many lesbians have an inexplicable penchant for gay male porn.
In short, the movie is sometimes dark, but also sometimes light — just like in, well, you know.
All the actors are off-the-charts terrific (although Moore and Ruffalo are probably the stand-outs, and Ruffalo’s ass should probably win a few acting awards just on its own). Mia Wasikowska, so overwhelmed by the visual mess that was Alice in Wonderland, proves that she has a major career ahead of her.
I will say this: there is a very hoary lesbian stereotype at the dead center of this movie (that I won’t reveal here, because the only thing I hate more than "movie buzz" are critics who reveal major plot points in their reviews). Frankly, I was disappointed the movie "went there."
To the movie’s credit, they handled it in a non-offensive, even interesting way. But it’s still such an obvious development, and such a crazy-omnipresent lesbian stereotype, that I was disappointed that director and co-writer Lisa Cholodenko couldn’t think of a better sub-plot.
If the movie is about lesbians (and not gay or bi men), why are we writing about it here on AfterElton.com? It’s not just that it has gay-favs Bening and Moore in leading roles. It’s also that it pretty much perfectly sums up where gay cinema is heading: it’s not "post-gay" exactly — there really couldn’t be a more lesbian-specific storyline than this.
On the other hand, it’s a gay drama(edy) aimed squarely at the American mainstream with absolutely no gay-specific angst or trauma. It is a simultaneously very "gay" story, but also a completely universal one. I can’t imagine anyone not identifying in some way with most or all of the characters.
In other words, it’s the next major step in mainstream gay film after Brokeback Mountain. And with its racially and sexually diverse cast and lesbian-accepting plot, it’s probably right at the dead center of where "blue state" American culture is right now (sadly, the "red states" are probably a few decades or so behind, as usual).
I’m thrilled lesbians now have such a movie to call their own (because they’ve been even more ignored by Hollywood than gay or bi men). But I confess I’m a little jealous too: I’d love to see such a contemporary, terrifically realized mainstream movie about gay or bisexual men.