'Kids Are All Right' captures comic family drama

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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What an appropriate title writer-director Lisa Cholodenko chose for her family comic drama "The Kids Are All Right."

The two kids of the film - teen siblings getting to know their biological dad - are great - smart, mature, high-minded, well-adjusted.

What an appropriate title writer-director Lisa Cholodenko chose for her family comic drama "The Kids Are All Right."

The two kids of the film - teen siblings getting to know their biological dad - are great - smart, mature, high-minded, well-adjusted.

On the other hand, the three adults, played with fierce heart and a genuine sense of well-meaning inadequacy by Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, are a mess.

The scenario concocted by Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg is a bit forced - repressed lesbian parents forced into contact with the carefree sperm donor who fathered their children. The mayhem that ensues strains credibility here and there.

Yet Cholodenko ("High Art," "Laurel Canyon") and her cast turn what could have been an utterly artificial story into a warm, funny, sharp-tongued and broiling examination of the volatility underlying even the happiest of families.

Southern California couple Nic (Bening) and Jules (Moore) live a seemingly ideal life with their kids, 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson).

Nic's a doctor and the authoritarian in the family, while flighty Jules is starting a landscaping business. They complement each other nicely, and while the romance in their relationship has cooled, they are steady companions and doting if somewhat stifling parents.

The two women should write a book on parenting, considering the two golden children they raised. Joni and Laser are dream kids - bright, compassionate, independent-minded, inquisitive.

That latter quality prompts them to seek out Paul (Ruffalo), the anonymous sperm donor Nic and Jules chose to father their children.

A restaurant owner, Paul's a laid-back bachelor suddenly enthralled with the notion of being a dad. His free and loose lifestyle, while appealing to Joni and Laser, puts him at odds with their "moms," particularly Nic.

Relations among Nic, Jules and Paul turn ugly in a way that's not too believable, though audiences will play along since it results in some deep and powerful dramatic moments.

While the family focus is razor-sharp in "The Kids Are All Right," the film wanders into some blind alleys with Laser's pointless friendship with an obnoxious youth and Joni's shallow puppy love dalliance with a classmate. Neither relationship adds anything, hanging there like filler that distracts from the main drama.

Bening dominates a film loaded with terrific performances, embodying a woman whose ice-queen exterior conceals a soft, vulnerable centre that she reveals between bouts of piercing, often hilarious preaching and griping.

Moore's performance is fearless and moving, while Ruffalo, whose easy charm often disguises how good an actor he can be, shows off new levels of depth and contentiousness.

The film marks a nice graduation to serious adult roles for Wasikowska, who played the title role in Tim Burton's blockbuster "Alice in Wonderland," and veteran child star Hutcherson ("Journey to the Center of the Earth," "Bridge to Terabithia").

Hollywood has yet to deliver much this year to compete at the Academy Awards. Bening and Moore could end up accounting for two of the five best-actress slots, while Ruffalo, Wasikowska and Hutcherson all deserve a long look from awards voters.

And who knows? With a doubled field of 10 best-picture nominees at the Oscars again, Cholodenko's intimate family portrait might make the cut for Hollywood's most-prestigious top-10 list.

Three stars out of four.

Organizations: Center of the Earth

Geographic location: Southern California, Hollywood, Wonderland

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