The Kids Are Both Right

The “all right” part of The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010) obviously means that Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), the kids in question, are safe and sound. But there may be an alternate meaning. I first saw this funny, heartfelt story of a lesbian couple, their children, and their sperm donor with my parents and little sister. This made the already ungainly and uncomfortable sex scenes even more awkward, but it also reminded me that for all the wisdom parents impart to their offspring, the old dogs can learn new tricks from us, too. My parents, for instance, would never have bought the movie OnDemand if I hadn’t been pining to see it (and known how to work the OnDemand).

I think that’s why I’ve long wondered whether the title has an alternate meaning, that the kids are all (as in both) right because they’re correct. Better than their mothers, Joni and Laser understand that, in a family, space and proximity are always performing a tenuous two-step, recalibrating the balance. Nic (Annete Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) oscillate between extremes of closeness and distance, with the kids as with each other. One moment they’re smothering, the next they’re leaning away — jumping forward and back but ultimately going nowhere, like a car spinning its wheels.

Moore was underrated here. After so many repressed housewives, the languid, drifting Jules is a strong example of playing against type — when she embarks on an affair with the sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo, looking just like his name sounds), it honestly feels like someone stumbling into something she didn’t expect, and for which she doesn’t understand the consequences. But it’s Bening, hair shorn almost as short as Nic’s fuse, who elicits our memories of unrequited longing. Trying to warm up to Paul by discussing his love of Joni Mitchell, she strains out a dinner-table rendition of “All I Want” that captures just how beautifully The Kids Are All Right matches Joni and Laser’s sense of balance. Poised perfectly on the line between comedy and drama, Bening sings off-key: “Do you see — do you see — do you see how you hurt me baby / So I hurt you too / Then we both get so blue.”

Retreating to the bathroom moments later, she discovers the affair on the end of a hairbrush, and when she returns to the table it’s a moment of quiet revelation. How easily we adults forget what kids know instinctively, and the work we have to do to remember once more.

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