PARK CITY — As Lisa Cholodenko’s latest Southern California-set feature plays out, the title may seem particularly apt. An otherwise conventional romantic comedy centering on the mid-life parenting issues of a long-time lesbian couple, this love letter to gay-marriage supporters is respectably entertaining filmmaking, it’s just not exceptional.
The cultural zeitgeist is just right for “Kids” to receive a warm reception from art house crowds and with a top-notch cast and Cholodenko’s solid reputation, reasonable returns should be expected.
Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) have been together nearly 20 years and have two kids by artificial insemination. Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is a typical teenager, focused on sports and girls, although more experienced with the former. Sensitive, thoughtful Joni (Mia Wasikowska) has just turned 18 during her last summer home before heading off to university. Shortly after his sister’s birthday, Laser asks Joni to follow up on a previous plan to make contact with their biological father.
Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the anonymous donor, is a laid-back entrepreneur and organic gardening enthusiast with a locavore restaurant but few other commitments in his life who is totally cool with meeting his offspring after a call from the sperm bank. Their first encounter, kept secret from the “moms,” is understandably awkward, but soon the kids are regularly hanging out with Paul, until Laser inadvertently reveals their subterfuge to his parents.
Jules takes the news fairly well, but ever-uptight Nic reacts unfavorably, worried about Paul’s potential influence on her kids. An informal introductory lunch ends with Paul inviting Jules, who is launching a fledgling landscape design business, to remodel his overgrown back yard.
Rather improbably, an attraction develops between Jules and Paul, and before long they are copulating like newlyweds, despite their shared guilt. Meanwhile, Paul has bonded remarkably well with Laser and Joni, offering them some respite from their moms’ smothering parenting. Nic’s chance discovery that her spouse is cheating with their sperm donor sends the family into a tailspin, with Paul left to wonder just where he fits in.
While snappy, realistic dialogue is one of the strengths of Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg’s nonchalantly breezy script, the writers often strive a bit too obviously for perceived authenticity (the phrase “I’m just sayin'” seems to be repeated with the frequency of an advertising disclaimer). Despite some key character-motivation omissions, Moore, Bening and Ruffalo all deliver endearingly quirky comic performances, with Wasikowska also particularly effective as the confused and resentful Joni.
Cholodenko’s polished directing and Igor Jadue-Lillo’s cinematography burnish the boho LA settings with an almost tactile sheen, while production design by Julie Berghoff ornaments key scenes with revealing details.
“The Kids Are All Right” ultimately requires that audiences sympathize with the already familiar foibles of well-off, white Socal residents whose problems might seem fairly mundane to others struggling with crime, poverty and illiteracy. But whatever works — “I’m just sayin”….
Venue: Sundance Film Festival
Production: Gilbert Films, Plum Pictures, Antidote Films
Cast: Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Screenwriters: Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg
Producers: Gary Gilbert, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Celine Rattray, Jordan Horowitz, Daniela Taplin Lundberg
Executive Producers: Steven Saxton, Ron Stein, Christy Cashman, Anne O’Shea, Riva Marker, Andrew Sawyer, Neil Katz, J. Todd Harris
Director of photography: Igor Jadue-Lillo
Production designer: Julie Berghoff
Music: Craig Wedren, Nathan Larson
Costumes: Mary Claire Hannan
Editor: Jeffrey M. Werner
Sales: Cinetic Media
No Rating, 104 minutes