For gay or straight parents, Mark Ruffalo's character Paul in The Kids Are All Right---tanned, coolly scruffy, possessing a college-is-a-waste-of-time attitude and riding a motorcycle---is your basic nightmare. Moms Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) have plenty to fret over when their children (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) seek out their sperm donor father (Ruffalo), but you really feel their discomfort when Paul comes to dinner, and his grinning mumble-tone and casual bravado upsets the disciplined and hyper-articulate tone. You don't blame Nic for feeling territorial; just who the hell is this guy telling my kids exactly what they want to hear? And what do I do if they start to believe him? The Kids Are All Right is about the dangers of interlopers in tight-knit families and how they can sometimes magnify and extrapolate long-contained, but rarely addressed, tensions and problems. Sure, it has a middle-aged lesbian couple as the protagonists, but the subject of the drama is long-term marriage and partnership, period.
Lisa Cholodenko, who directed the film and co-wrote the script with Stuart Blumberg, told the San Francisco Bay Guardian that "I think we hoped that it would have a mainstream appeal to it, and that we could get beyond the people who would be apprehensive." She wanted wide appeal while refusing to sacrifice some of the more frank aspects of the story. "There were questions about the gay porn and about how much sexuality we were showing, but we felt like, this is the fun of the film. It's not going to be Spider-man 12 or something. It's not going to be a multiplex film. But we hope it's not going to be super rarefied art house film."
Cholodenko's previous films where she has served as writer-director (and even her hired gun work on TV, directing episodes of The L Word, Six Feet Under and Homicide: Life on the Streets) are not a rebuke to the mainstream, but rather oases of high intelligence for smart adults who like good stories. There are detailed and inviting production values, great performances from noted actors and scripts with verbal dexterity and sharp ideas. High Art (1998), a complicated, sensual star-crossed romance between an art-magazine junior editor (Radha Mitchell) and a reclusive photographer (Ally Sheedy), is a benchmark of modern love stories. Frances McDormand simply walks away with 2002's Laurel Canyon, where her flighty record producer character hosts her uptight son (Christian Bale) and his fiancee (Kate Beckinsale), but the script doesn't have the emotional depth of High Art.
Quality-wise, The Kids fits somewhere between the two. The script doesn't shirk the messy realities of relationships, gay or straight, romantic or parental, but does have a frustrating tendency to cut to characters looking wistful or chastened, and away from juicy arguments and conversations right where one suspects the real dirt is about to fly. And that is a shame because Cholodenko has employed Bening, an actor among a very elite rank who can simultaneously titillate an audience and terrify them when she gets angry on film.
However, these problems are merely quibbles, and one suspects that they will not matter to the large audiences who will see the film. They will find their own things to debate. Cholodenko's achievement is not making a mainstream "lesbian" movie, but rather an intelligent family drama for a wide audience while blunting its incisive edges.