The Kids Are All Right, an adorably high-spirited romp from Laurel Canyon director Lisa Cholodenko, is an indie film (with glossy studio production values) about a suburban family standing up to a threat from without; plundering from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Odd Couple and Meet the Parents, it's a classic Hollywood domestic comedy with a mischievous twist.
Not the twist you're imagining, perhaps: The fact that the yin-yang Southern California couple at the movie's center are lesbians is played nonchalantly straight. Though common enough in mainstream cinema today, gay characters are almost invariably relegated to the status of wisecracking best friends with nothing to do in life but act gay and dispense romantic advice. Not here: The guiding joke in The Kids Are All Right is not that Nic and Jules are a same-sex couple, but that they're so utterly conventional -- the kind of healthy-eating, meticulously recycling, solid citizens you might find in any affluent metropolitan enclave.
Played with verve by Annette Bening in a fetching short shag, Nic is a go-getting gynecologist whose public smile conceals a tongue dripping with acid. Nic runs the family, but she gives a long leash to her emo spouse (Julianne Moore), a stay-at-home wife and career dilettante currently dabbling in landscape design. (It must be the couple's habit of unwinding at day's end with a little gay male porn that drew a draconian R rating -- in every other respect, The Kids Are All Right is a capable bourgeois comedy.)
Nic and Jules adore one another, but like most other long-lasting unions, their marriage has grown a little stale. They scarcely notice, so overflowing are these two with worry about their teenage children, the college-bound Joni (Alice in Wonderland's Mia Wasikowska) and the sweet-natured Laser (Josh Hutcherson), an impressionable kid who keeps company with a coke-snorting "untended" friend his anxious moms would rather he ditched.
Enter disruption, in the dishy form of Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a hippie restaurateur whose anonymously donated sperm helped give life to Joni and Laser. Unencumbered, free of spirit and lacking in all introspection, Paul readily agrees to meet ("I love lesbians!") when his bio-kids reach out. The three get along famously, but the moms, who learn about the meeting after the fact, are more cautious -- not, it must be noted, because the newcomer is straight or even because he's a man, but because, having dropped out of college and never having sustained a lasting relationship, he doesn't strike them as role-model material.
Though he grows his own veggies, it turns out that Paul has some "untended" terrain of his own, which grows unnervingly clear as he becomes part of the family in ways that upset the equilibrium Nic and Jules have worked so hard to calibrate. What follows, ironically, may prove less palatable to highly politicized lesbian audiences than to backers of Proposition 8.
Then again, it's hard to imagine any but the most dour and humorless taking offense at this essentially sweet-natured movie. Co-written by Cholodenko (who with her partner conceived a child by sperm donor) and Keeping the Faith screenwriter Stuart Blumberg (a sperm donor when he was in college), the crisply funny screenplay delivers a slyly affectionate poke in the ribs to boomer culture, with its compulsive hyper-parenting and narcissistic introspection on the one hand, and its devoted pursuit of self-gratification on the other.
If there's a sin committed in The Kids Are All Right, it's less sexual than moral: The movie's real critique is aimed at the heedlessness of playing with others' emotions and taking what doesn't belong to you. Indeed, the action progresses to a ringing endorsement of traditional family values and an homage to the sheer hard work that goes into building, maintaining and defending a family -- for anyone, gay or straight. It's bitchy, compulsive Nic who holds the center together, and if The Kids Are All Right can be said to have a gay sensibility at all, it lies in the film's rousing defense of one of the most maligned figures in American cinema -- the strong mother.