Family Ties

The funny, sexy The Kids Are All Right may be the best domestic drama we'll see this year

  • Focus Features

    Mia Wasikowska, left, and Josh Hutcherson star as Joni and Laser in Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right

    When restaurateur Paul (Mark Ruffalo) was 19, he made a few bucks as a sperm donor. Then he forgot all about it. Fretting over the possible fallout from actually producing children — the subject of Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right , a perfectly observed, sexy study of a modern American family — wasn't his thing. And as he explains at a dinner with his two biological children he's just met, along with their two mothers, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules ( Julianne Moore ), neither was college. "I'm a doer. That's how I learn," he says cheerfully.

    Nic, a physician who is intensely invested in her children's higher education, looks as if she's swallowed something unpleasant. But pretty, bohemian Jules eyes Paul with recognition. She's more of a dreamer than a doer, but she warms to this kindred free spirit. They haven't even gotten to dessert, but you can tell these people are getting ready to possibly ruin one another's lives. It's deliciously fraught; this might be the best domestic drama we'll see all year. It's certainly the best acted: Bening is sublimely prickly yet always sympathetic, and Moore is like a middle-aged, lesbian version of Annie Hall , enchanting and unreliable.

    It's the kids who seek Paul out. When Joni (Mia Wasikowska), named for Joni Mitchell, turns 18, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) pressures her to find their donor dad. "That could really hurt Moms' feelings," Joni says. But she acquiesces and soon is explaining to Paul how his sperm was used by both her mothers. "I love lesbians," Paul says, a little too enthusiastically, wincing at his own idiocy. Just as he did in You Can Count on Me , Ruffalo plays a jerk, but one painted in a dozen shades of appealing, and every woman in the cast is drawn to him in some fashion, except for Nic.

    As someone whose life has revolved around only shallow relationships, like the one with his pretty restaurant hostess (Yaya DaCosta), Paul is intrigued by the notion of having a son to advise, an admiring daughter to garden with. You can see him calculating the price of a lease on his offspring; the responsibility is negligible, since they've already been trained by Nic and Jules. Nic refers to him as an "interloper," but really Paul is more like an outsider with a genetic hall pass whose unsettling presence serves as the fulcrum by which we come to understand this family's dynamics. Nic and Jules have a lesbian-specific quirk or two (they like watching gay men's porn to get turned on), but otherwise they have the completely average issues of any middle-aged couple. Nic drinks too much and is frustrated by Jules' lifelong habit of dabbling. Jules feels the weight of Nic's disapproval and misses feeling sexy and appreciated.

    Cholodenko ( Laurel Canyon ) takes this family on a bumpy ride — hinted at in an opening sequence in which Laser's skateboard rattles across the pavement — but it's completely organic and true. We feel as though we're present and participating in every mistake and misstep and, ultimately, the regretful, touching journey back.