A Decade at the Oscars: The Kids are All Right
25) Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
26) Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019)
27) The Kids are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010)
28) The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014)
29) Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
Do you ever watch a film and feel like you are looking through a window into people’s lives rather than a fictionalised drama being projected onto a screen? There are scholars in early Film Studies who dedicated their whole writing careers to the pursuit of this phenomenological goal, and yet cinema of the 21st century seems to have swung in the opposite direction, favouring escapism over authenticity. Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids are All Right seems determined to right this trajectory single-handedly, if not through realism of formal elements then through that of its characters, scenarios and performances. For it truly feels as through the family at its centre and those that orbit their universe are full, rounded individuals with quirks and flaws and mannerisms and feelings that go beyond the words on the pages of a script or the scenes contained within a film. When every aspect of a cinematic world feels this well developed and, for want of a better word, realistic, it is so easy to get swept up in the dilemmas and emotions that the characters feel, and that is the magic of The Kids are All Right.
Pivotal to the film is the concept of family. In this case, the family includes lesbian couple Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening), plus their children Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), who were born with the sperm donated by free-spirited bar owner Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Plenty of characters to get our teeth into then, but Cholodenko doesn’t let any of them down. Moore and Bening are just perfect as a middle-aged lesbian couple who are very different personalities, but who share a deep, loving bond. Jules and Nic never become pastiche or unrealistic despite the numerous stereotypical lesbian traits they sometimes display – they are not caricatures, but rather fleshed-out characters who just happen to have certain typical lesbian traits alongside all sorts of other facets of their personalities. Similarly Joni is the smart, intuitive, hipster schoolgirl who is far more interested in homework than sex or make-up. Again, she could be a stereotype but the film doesn’t let her become this, instead making her feel like a real human being on the brink of the great discoveries of adulthood; the precipice of maturity and responsibility. Laser is perhaps the character we learn least about, but he provides a decent side-plot by playing the rebellious teenager, all while having a deep affection for his family that he is far too cool to outwardly display. His relationship with Paul gives the movie yet another layer, as he grows the closest to Ruffalo’s character, seeing him as an aspirational father figure. It is thus Laser’s rejection of Paul in favour of his true family that seals the sperm-donor’s fate as being completely cast-out of the domestic circle. For you see, for all his freedom, promiscuity and assumed happiness, Paul, just like every human being, realises the joy and purpose that a family provides, and once he’s in it is very difficult for him to emotionally un-attach himself. It is his journey from bachelor to family man and back again that is the film’s best through-line, the sort of narrative that makes you consider your own position on family, and whether your life is truly as fulfilling as it might be.
Alongside family, of course, comes sex, and this is another major theme in The Kids are All Right. Cholodenko is unafraid to show plenty of it, rather gratuitously, and it affects every character in the film. Joni’s storyline features elements of sexual awakening and of course the very idea that she and Laser are the products of a sperm donor brings the concept of sex and the nature of procreation to the forefront right from the start. More interestingly still, the film analyses the nature of queerness and the uncertainty and untidiness of who you are or are not attracted to. In doing so, Cholodenko presents sexuality very much as a spectrum and displays all the messy details and consequences of that. This inevitably culminates in a scene where Nic discovers that Jules has been unfaithful to the soundtrack of Joni Mitchell (why is it always Joni Mitchell!?), a scene of extreme sobriety and pain. The film decides, though, that love and family are enough to conquer the missteps we can make as sexual beings, and though the final shots do show a certain breaking-up of the family, this is caused by the choice of progress as Joni goes off to university, rather than the painful mistakes that Jules and Nic both inflict on each other throughout the film. Thus, the ending is not quite happy, tinged with the sadness of impending distance, but it is relatively upbeat for, though some doors are unavoidably closing, the characters are moving positively into a new stage in their lives.
In terms of my ranking of the last decade of Oscars Best Picture nominated films, The Kids are All Right falls towards the bottom of those movies to which I would grant the full 5 stars. Indeed, placed just above and below it are the very different family dramas Parasite and Boyhood. Bong Joon-ho’s film, the most recent winner of the Best Picture gong, is a frightening insight into the struggles of class and the lengths to which people will go to in order to move up in the world. Its family are a little more eccentric and perhaps more shallow in terms of characterisation than our family in The Kids are All Right, but the problems they face seem appallingly real. Joon-ho’s film is perhaps a more socially important one than Cholodenko’s, even if it is a considerably less pleasant experience to sit through. Boyhood is a very different beast again, a technical marvel having been filmed over 12 years by Linklater, it is amazing that it works nearly as well as it does. It is the ultimate coming-of-age movie, and epic work of cinema in which we see somebody grow up before our very eyes. And yet it lacks the emotional spark that makes The Kids are All Right so good, the spark that I’m sure will see me return to this film again and again over the years now that I know what a hidden gem it is.
At time of writing, The Kids are All Right is currently unavailable on the major streaming platforms, but you can rent it from Amazon Prime Video, or add it to your DVD collection!