The film centres on two moms- Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a middle aged couple of 20 years about to send their daughter off to college. Nic is an obstetrician and Jules is starting her own landscaping business, looking to build a project of her own now that their children are older.
Their children, 18-year old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and 15-year old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) are curious about their sperm-donor father and now that Joni is 18 they are allowed to contact the agency to enquire. They arrange to meet Paul (Mark Ruffalo), their bohemian, organic produce enthusiast, leather-clad father. He is socially minded and ultra cool with the whole situation, accepting the meeting without hesitation. But as Paul becomes more embedded in the family his presence drives a wedge between all members of the Allgood family.
Both Cholodenoko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg are familiar with birth by sperm donation as Cholodenoko herself has a son by anonymous sperm donor and Blumberg was a donor in college. But the film doesn’t focus on sperm donation itself, or growing up not knowing who your father is. The children are very loved and well adjusted. Instead, this is about the changing nature of families, jealousy, frustrating relationships, freedom and belonging.
The same sex relationship of the mothers is a totally and utterly normal baseline to the film. It is explained to Paul at the beginning and his bumbling reaction when he realises what’s being explained to him is “Ok. Cool. I love lesbians”, accompanied by a cringe at his own awkwardness.
It’s not the cause of any of their emotional journeys, not is it an issue for the children. Yes there are two moms. Now let’s get on with the film. The children’s interactions with Paul are both initially curious but they soon diverge. Laser sees Paul as something of a threat and he is standoffish. Here is a different kind of masculinity – confident, bordering on irresponsible – one that Laser doesn’t necessarily need.
For Joni, Paul is a masculine presence she does need. She’s about to spread her wings and fly off to college and is keen to be freed from the bounds of her family’s rules. Paul rides a forbidden motorbike, owns his own business and is an example of a fun, free and more adult life.
For Jules too, Paul represents a freedom she’s missing after years as a stay at home mom. Their relationship is about escaping a same-old same-old relationship and running with something forbidden.
Nic, though, is suspicious of the bad influence Paul might be on the family and is feels threatened. She’s also hurt that her children would seek him out in the first place.
She’s spent years distilling discipline and caution into her children and that is being disrupted. Benning encapsulates all of this distrust and response to threat in simple facial expressions and body language, justifying her fourth Oscar nomination for this role.
Paul himself is not nefarious or intentionally parasitic though. He realises he wants a family and is pleased to be invited into this one. He’s just ignorant of the damage he has caused and is ultimately left out in the cold, peering through the window at the family he has fractured.
The revelation that he has children is a shock to his life too, no matter how cool he seems about it all, or the fact that he would have known he had some given he donated the sperm.
“The Kids Are All Right” is an incredibly accessible exploration of some very complicated relationships and emotions. These feelings and situations are universal, no matter your family background. Relationships get stale and get threatened, freedom will always be yearned for, as will a sense of belonging.
It’s a deep journey but one that’s presented with humour, hazy suburban Californian sunshine and a warming acoustic soundtrack. You will leave feeling uplifted.
The kids really will be all right, and so can we.
Hi, I'm Caz. I live in Edinburgh and I watch a lot of films. My reviews focus mainly on women in film - female directors or how women are represented on screen.