Lisa Cholodenko often strikes me as a less funny Nicole Holofcenter, and upon typing that line, I realize many readers may not have a clue what I’m talking about. So let’s back up: both are female directors whose movies tend toward low-key, realistic comedies that are more about character interactions than narrative tightness. Holofcenter’s films, like LOVELY AND AMAZING or FRIENDS WITH MONEY, tend to make some nice satirical points in the process, while Cholodenko’s – think HIGH ART and LAUREL CANYON – are meandering and, as far as I can tell, unfocused, beyond trying to make some fairly obvious points about how lesbians are normal people too. (I remain open to contrary opinions on this matter, but for me, her movies really could stand to be a little tighter, even for the kind of casual ensemble pieces that they are).

Cholodenko’s latest, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, begins from the perspective of high-school senior Joni (Mia Wasikowska) who, along with her brother named Laser (Josh Hutcherson) has two mommies, or “Momses” as she calls them – butch control-freak Nic (Annette Bening) and feminine flake Jules (Julianne Moore). When her brother…aw, screw it, hold up a sec. Let’s take a moment to focus on the fact that the kid is unironically named “Laser.” And that he insists on being called this in full, rather than any nickname version like “Laze.” Sister Joni gets a whole scene devoted to the origin of her name – it’s because of Joni Mitchell, which brings about a bonding moment in a later scene – while we never, ever hear why the boy-child has been given such a dumb moniker next to that. Did Nic and Jules buy each other a Joni Mitchell concert Laserdisc at some point? Or is the point just to have a weird name, unexplained? I like non-sequitur humor, but this seems to be missing the mark.


Anyway, Laser has started trying to find his biological father, and enlists Joni’s help. Despite her reservations, she agrees, and rather easily finds Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who proves to be kind of a dream dude – friendly, motorcycle-riding, and runs an organic restaurant where he grows his own vegetables himself. He even watches his language: Paul’s version of “STFU,” uttered repeatedly, is “Shut the front door!” As Joni’s best friend Sasha puts it, “Spermster’s a hottie!”

So the kids kinda want Paul to be part of their lives, and he’s pretty psyched too – he gets awesome kids without having to do all the messy stuff in their formative years. But the parents are less enthused…finally persuaded to have him for dinner, Nic simply says, “Let’s just kill him with kindness and put it to bed.” But then Jules bonds with him, too…she has been trying to start a landscaping business, and Paul needs work done in his backyard, so soon he’s her first client.

And then there’s more. We’ve already had it established that Nic and Jules enjoy gay male porn, but Jules, it seems, can also be tempted by the real thing. Given the presence of Tim Burton’s own Alice, Mia Wasikowksa, one is tempted to dub Jules’ further misjudged escapades A LEZ IN BLUNDERLAND.

At this point, the movie plainly stops being from Joni’s perspective, and becomes Paul and Jules’ story. And it probably should have been thus throughout, as Cholodenko seems more interested in these characters than anyone else. Joni remains mostly one-note – she chafes under Nic’s strictness – while Nic never really transcends her frosty exterior to become a fully dimensional, likeable person. Laser has a minor subplot with a dumb friend whom his parents suspect to be a gay lover, but by the time the movie wraps up, it’s like it’s pretending to have been Joni’s story all along…which it really wasn’t.

A movie of this sort needn’t necessarily be told from one perspective, if you’re going to balance a lot of subplots in Altman-esque fashion. But this isn’t a bunch of subplots – it’s one family being affected by meeting one guy. And it would be a stronger story if it were primarily one character’s story. If Joni, let us discover the affair through her eyes. If Jules, let us discover the sperm donor’s return from her perspective.

What we have is an amiable character portrait that is enjoyable at times, but for me, difficult to get emotionally invested in.

I didn’t go to the after-party, and probably just as well, given the sports riots in the neighborhood. If you’re reading this and did go, how was that to navigate?


Luke Y. Thompson is an actor, writer, and film critic living in Hollywood.

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