RIORI Vol 3, Installment 47: Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” (2010)


The Players…

Annette Bening, Juilianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowaska and Josh Hutcherson.

The Story…

Joni and Laser (Laser?) are the children of same-sex parents Nic and Jules. Their home is a happy one. But the kids become curious about their sperm-donor dad, so they set out to make him part of their family unit.

His arrival…complicates things. Well beyond remembering to put the toilet seat down.

The Rant…

We all have prejudices. We all have families. I think one precedes the other.

For the first, we all are biased in some way towards (or against) some school of thought. Whether it be fave baseball teams, certain writers, vanilla or chocolate. Hell, even who your favorite Beatle was (mine’s George, the quiet one. Ironic?). I’ve also heard such could be said about movies, but I ain’t buying.

Folks still get in a twist over race relations and same-sex marriages and all the baggage that entails. People still get all antsy and agitated over differences in skin color and who should bump uglies with whom. Even if you’re the most left-leaning lefty this side of viewing Caitlin Jenner as a feminist icon, admit it, you like and hate things for no logical reason. Yankee of Red Sock? Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky? Uh, vanilla or chocolate? We all have our favorites, and some based on not considering an alternative important—if not vital—in making an educated decision.

Yeah, including me. Surprise, surprise yours truly’s got issues too when it comes to this over that. Like I said we all do. I’m not talking literally rent it or relent it either. I’ve got scads of issues with both pop culture and human nature alike based only on emotion, opinion and nary a whit of logic to be found. Son in the spirit of an open forum—which blogs are ostensibly supposed to be, regardless of annoying ads in the margins—I’ll spill so you can feel self-satisfied, safe in the belief that you never notice skin color, two guys kissing is sweet, Jews and Muslims can play a pick-up game of basketball on a Friday and all of the Fab Four were equally talented. You know all this because you crank “Honey Pie” up to eleven every time you’re going for a drive, much to the protests of your passengers.

You, and I, are full of sh*t. Let’s get that out in the air, shall we?

Like the wise folks of Avenue Q sang, everyone’s a little bit racist. Me? I get anxious around people not of my race in fear of blurting out something offensive and getting a beat down. Same for people of differing religious views (thought I think most Christians would quickly heed the lesson of Jesus about turning the other cheek, but this is ‘Murica, after all). I don’t believe in organized religion, and even that could get me into a scrape. By me now saying that the Boston Red Sox are my favorite MLB franchise runs the risk of every Yankee fan out there possibly rescinding their feed to RIORI. Social faux pas abound. And future beat downs.

I’m no saint; I got issues. Hell, I got the goddam lifetime subscription. But for all my social flaws and backwards views on society and the human factor at large, I know I’m not a homophobe. For real. Never gave it a second thought about who wants to shack up with whom. Even in high school I figured if I caught one guy kissing another it meant two more chicks for me. That way of thinking explains my relative indifference to same-sex marriages becoming legal in these our United States. On a personal level? Couldn’t give a f*ck. It was going to happen anyway. It’s all nice and good that same-sex couples could come out of the closet and profess their love and commitment to one another without moronic Bible beaters screaming hellfire and sin. By the way, the Good Book has maybe three admonishments against homosexuality and hundreds of admonishments against straight people. Just sayin’.

So besides some relevant political flap to make Congress cringe—millions of dollars in tax breaks for thousands of newly married couples in a tidewater surge. Guess the upgrade on the Capital’s snack bar is gonna have to wait—I do not care who f*cks whom. And for the record to any of you gay-bashers out there, your humble host has a wife, a daughter and a step-daughter. He has had nothing but female companionship in bed. In high school two of my good friends—a boy and a girl—were gay. Didn’t matter to me. My male bud was one of the first up us pimple cases to have Internet access. Of course we looked up porn. We were teenagers. We took turns between sites. I made the popcorn. I even crashed at his place on multiple weekends. And no, nothing every happened, except maybe too much Natty Ice, Paul Simon and Sonic The Hedgehog 2. Christ that stuff was addictive. So was the beer. Rhythm Of The Saints not so much. The closest thing I ever got to homophobia was when Bob Mould stepped out of the closet. I was surprised, then I flipped the record to side B.

There’s nothing wrong with being gay and you know it. Same-sex couples make a lot of sense when you think about it. Guys understand guys. Girls understand girls. When the opposites mix we get wine coolers, Dr Phil and Coldplay. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Pass the Zima.

On the second thing, even before we make up our muddled minds over what’s greener we gotta have some yutz sow the seeds. That’s when it begins. Mom and Dad. You got to have a foundation. Most of the time it works. The ‘rents do their best to instill concepts of social justice, morals and decent musical tastes into your mind from the outset. Then again there are kids in expansive Polaroids wearing hunting gear emblazoned with more American flag patches than your average Rear Admiral haunched over a fresh kill, usually a buck with the Star of David spray painted on his flank. That kid is three.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Please don’t beat me up.

But it’s true. Moms and Dads everywhere on the planet mould their kids minds and hearts, for good or for ill. No surprise there at all. Then again there that whole “nature vs nurture” argument that’s been raging since one of our ancestor kids asked, “Where did I come from?”

It’s a tough/tricky question when you think about it. Beyond the whole sexual tab A/slot B dynamic, where do we come from? Not our genes so much as our personalities, fears, loves, successes and woes. Where do we come from. Parents have a say, naturally (or any guardian for that matter) but is there some weirdly wonderful chemistry a-cookin’ that makes us us? And beyond that, why is it we feel compelled to learn more about us? And our families, for that matter? Curiosity? An inner drive? The need to understand—nay, comprehend (if that’s possible)—our relatives and how we fit into the big picture, hunting trip or no?

I figure it doesn’t really depend from which bolt of cloth you were cut from. Peoples is peoples. And you gotta admit—briefly ignoring the “nature/nurture” thing—who you are reflects who raised you.

Or maybe for the case of Joni and Laser (again: Laser?) it’s who didn’t raise you…

After years of happy antagonism, sibs Joni (uh…Mia) and Laser (Hutcherson) have been bitten by the curiosity bug pretty damn fierce. Well, maybe not Joni, but when you’re the only guy awash in a sea of estrogen it’s natural to want to get to better know your dad. Wherever he is.

Look, Nic (Bening) and Jules (Moore) have done the best they could to raise two somewhat normal and mostly functioning kids. Mostly happily married and holding down decent jobs (well, Nic anyway), they’ve made a pretty happy home. Laser figures having two moms is cool and actually having a blood sister to bounce off of is pretty okay, too. Nic and Jules were even thoughtful enough to maintain the “typical American family” model that when they wanted children, they were inseminated by the same donor. Therefore the circle would be complete.

It doesn’t feel complete for Laser (that name, jeez).

Since he’s only 17, Laser tasks Joni to do a little Internet sifting. Her being a legal adult gives her a bit more freedom in Laser’s hunt, since most matters involved needs adult clearance. You must be tall enough to ride this ride. And what a ride it is.

Laser (never Laze, mind you) wants to know who his dad is. He came from somewhere; there were two parties involved into his coming into being, and both Nic and Jules are not square pegs. What to do? Scour sperm banks in the greater LA area. Locate records. Find dad. And with Joni’s smarts, Laser knows it’ll only be a matter of time before his dad wiggles his tail. So to speak.

Beating the bushes eventually pays off. Again, so to speak.

Paul (Ruffalo) is a raffish, scruffy, poetic restauranteur living across town. He’s kinda hipster—rides a motorcycle, organic foods, eclectic musical taste, prerequisite beard—and as far away a father could be. Imagine Paul’s surprise when Joni and Laser show up at his restaurant out of the blue. It’s awkward to say the least, but the kids are determined. They want their dad as an active role in their lives. Hopefully give them some insight that their moms can’t on life, love and leaving. Maybe stop by their house, have dinner, meet Nic and Jules. Bring wine.

Paul admits outright that he never wanted to be a father. The only reason he made a donation back in the day was to score some fast cash. Sure he was aware of what his…um, legacy would be, but never did expect his mystery progeny to crash his eatery. Still, the kids seem cool and Paul is a bit curious about his erstwhile moms. And it would be the “fatherly” thing to do.

So unsure of his newfound kids and in-laws intentions, wine in tow, Paul ventures forth with Joni and Laser into to dark terra incognito of the modern, 21st Century blended family. He figures that maybe he could dispense some paternal guidance (if he knew any) to Joni and particularly Laser. Maybe bond a little with the moms, hands where they can see them. Perhaps find a family his vagabond lifestyle has denied him.

Or may be the greatest spanner in the works of the most passive-agressive same-sex marriage dynamic this side of Caligula’s Rome.

Here’s hoping…

Well, well, well. What we got ourselves here is your little ol’, same-sex family comedy-drama here. A first for RIORI. Probably a last as Hollywood deems. No matter.

For a blended family, Kids’ dynamic seems pretty typical. I guess that’s the point. I figured out right quick that the focus, the Maguffin here is not that Nic and Jules are lesbians, married and are raising two kids. No. Their relationship is just a vehicle to bring Paul into the picture. To permit hijinks to ensue. That’s what’s what. Chances are that you know a family like Nic and Jules’. Hell, chances are better that you are in a family like Nic and Jules’. The whole comi-tragic give and take in Kids reflects all of our families, even the ones we never met. I mean, Nic and Jules are my mom, one and the same. This family could be just as normal as yours, if they tried to. The Cosby Show this ain’t. This feels like a “real” family. God help us all.

That bringing us to ground level, and forgetting the ultimately disposable lesbian thing, Kids is all about what I blathered over with the “where did I come from?” quest. First and foremost, Kids is a character study, and running the risk of a beat down I say the lesbian marriage is a gimmick. Now maybe director Chodolenko is gay and simply reflecting her ideas inspired by the gay community (not sure if she is, but regardless she’s pretty astute in her observations. Sonic 2 and all that). Or she was the child of a same-sex couple and Kids reflects years in the trenches. In any case, Kids is about the characters’ interplay. If you consider it, the plot is pretty stock and has been done before (e.g. Flirting With Disaster, Made In America, hell even the dippy 80s sitcom My Two Dads). What holds Kids together is our holy host of characters, because ultimately they are which the story (derivative as it is) hangs.

The key word here is nuance. Despite all of our cast are ciphers (the A-type stern career woman, her freewheeling partner, the nerdy girl, the awkward boy and the rakish interloper “dad”) through subtlety they make their presence known. Cholodenko makes it all work by not emphasizing the cut-and-paste aspects of our motley crew. It’s the dialogue that makes Kids flow. Moreover it’s what’s not said that makes the story go down easily. The director is keenly aware that her pawns lie perilously close to the queen’s gambit, so she plays up audiences’ expectations of their motives by popping their bubbles.

Kids is rife with examples of such subversion. The humor is prickly, like you feel bad for snickering (not laughing, snickering). Paul has this Bowie soundtrack going on whenever he shows up at Nic and Jules’ place (doubtless stinking of Ziggy Stardust androgyny and outsider status, which makes for a cool soundtrack, BTW). And nobody is wearing makeup. I’m not talking rouge and pancake #5. No one is wearing makeup. Suggesting all being naked to the world maybe. Probably the last time this was the case in film was for Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking. It’s likely understood (by way of assumption here. Fear of beat downs, remember?) that most lesbians eschew getting dolled up. Stereotype? True. But like I said, quicker. What’s quicker still is the assumption that all of rogue’s gallery is naked to the world. Hearts on sleeves. Having a sh*tastic time keeping their emotions in check. Dance on the coals, folks. It makes for better tension, cringing we can all relate to. We all came from a family, remember? Most likely akin to Nic and Jules and Paul’s. If you didn’t, you’re a liar and you’re boring. Cholodenko taps into this, so squirm.

So. Here’s our characters as I saw them. I’ll try to be brief. I’m aware that I tend to go on and on and onandon about who’s doing what how in these installments. Again, all the cast are cut-outs, so no real need to go into any depth. However they do play their roles very sharply and the awkward chemistry is there to make sense of a dysfunctional, modern day family. Like blackish. or Modern Family. Hell, even The Simpsons. What I’m saying is that there was a reason Married…With Children survived for a decade on the air. We all come from a family and we all love to look at the car wreck.

Nic is your typical alpha-female control freak, trying to corral and keep order at all costs so her family is “safe.” Jules is free-spirited, impulsive and more than a bit ditzy. Small wonder these two get on so well. Or so it seems. Again no surprise that Joni and Laser reflect their moms’ personalities. It’s funny that the two kids spar in nearly the same way their folks do, but their interaction seem more civil and mature than mom times two.

Again it’s no wonder when Paul enters the picture—the outsider/irritant—that things go off kilter. It’s what drives the story. What’s worse is Ruffalo is such a likable, rakish rogue, what with his motorbike and free range chickens he also comes across as kind of sleazy. The whole route of the story is Paul trying to insinuate himself into his extended family in a hip “father knows best” kinda mode. It becomes fast apparent that Paul is out of his depth, and fumbles along trying to do the wrong things for the right reasons. His would-be sage advice and easy going spirit belies a lot of insecurity and opportunism. Paul’s not a bad guy, he just doesn’t realize it.

There is a subtle allusion towards the kids being gay, too, if only to reflect their moms’ sensibilities. Laser and his passive/aggressive friendship with his burgeoning psychopath friend Clay, afraid to bail on him. Joni and her being pressured by her slut-buddy Sasha to make a move on her buddy Jai. Not sure if my suspicions are correct, but I’d be hard-pressed to ignore my previous statements on how families shape as well as corrupt us. Maybe that’s what the director was getting at. Truth be told, been there, done that, will come around for a second helping.

Kids is a pretty good flick. Not great, mind you. It’s a bit predictable. Meaning it’s not that it will work out in the end, it’s how. There’s enough surprises and cracked dialogue to keep you watching, but I didn’t think it bore a second viewing. Once you’ve seen one dysfunctional lesbian movie with the Hulk pushing organic kale, you’ve pretty much seen ’em all.

People are alike all over, regardless of who you shack up with and lower the boom when the kiddies set off bottle rockets in the guest bathroom. I still feel that Kids same-sex marriage was kind of a gimmick. Heck, this plot would’ve worked if it were a hetero couple with a vacant mom/sterile dad. But thanks  to Cholodenko’s personal contributions and spin to the tale, it made for a rather interesting gimmick. That does count for something.

Now where did I put that Paul Simon disc? And my Sega Genesis? My old bud never calls back. Probably too busy dealing with his dad.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A very mild rent it. Like I said, the sturm und drang in Kids could’ve (and probably did) played out in another film. Still entertaining though, but the movie might’ve benefited from a little late night Sonic 2 binge.

Stray Observations…

  • “Mom, you’re windshield wiping.”
  • Ruffalo’s style is all about the mumbling.
  • “I love lesbians.”
  • Uh Huh Her. Cute, that.
  • “Take your time.”
  • ‘World’s Greatest Mom.’ Cute, too.
  • “I bought you some cigarettes.”
  • This is Moore at her most neurotic. Damn funny.
  • “To your unconventional family.” Clink.
  • You think Jules might’ve gotten knocked up? Well, sequels are en vogue lately.
  • “If I read more Russian novels…” Never solves anything.

Next Installment…

We explore the mysteries the Sahara may hold with Matthew McConaughey as Dirk Pitt, the budget Indiana Jones. And Steve Zahn, too. The Poor Man’s Short Round.

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