I wasn't sure what to expect from "The Kids Are All Right" other than sublime performances from three of my favorite actors today - Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Rufalo. Whatever I was expecting did not compare to what the film delivered - in spades. In short, TKAAR is a testament to the true - and new - meaning of family and a postcard of hope to the millions of non-traditional families who comprise our new reality. I liken the film to 1980's Best Picture, Ordinary People, which captured effortlessly the family dynamic of the time with brutal honesty and raw emotion. Watching "Kids" was partly a lesson in how far we've come as a society as well as how far we still need to travel to accept the fact that families come in new flavors (a same-sex couple here - deliciously played by Bening and Moore) as well as thru the miracle of science (a sperm donor, absent for a lifetime but suddenly available and real to his offspring).
While the subject matter may be distasteful to some, what I found especially touching about the film's characters and themes was how incredibly NORMAL and REAL these people were. The two moms (referenced repeatedly by the two teenagers in this quintet in the singular) are our neighbors, daughters, sisters, friends, and co-workers. We ride the subway with them, share the car pools and accept - at least on a surface level - the reality of their choices, without judgment or fear. Bening and Moore deliver stunning portrayals as the lesbian couple - they share a lived-in comfort and rapport that's familiar...like our own parents, and our own relationships - gay, straight or otherwise. Their home is lived in and relaxed. The battle the same demons most of us can relate to (that 3rd glass of wine some nights after crazy-busy days...or the longing a housewife feels for what she might have missed, the second-guessing of choices that are inevitable in any long term relationship.
But for me, what brings the film together, in the end - and after much frustration as the story ebbs and flows - is Mark Buffalo as the long-forgotten - and rarely discussed man - who donated the fruit of his testes for money in college. His life is upended as his connection with these two women and the children he spawned flows effortlessly, and his immediate sensual connection to Moore's character brings his new-found sensibilities to a bitter, life-altering crash. Buffalo works wonders with a role that relies on his stiff-upper-lip attitude and facial emotions. We see his evolution throughout the film, from when his stranger-children resurface and he's thrown unmercilesly under a microscope, finding himself unsure of who he is or why. He's both at peace with his playboy life but also yearns to know all that he's missed, accept what's left to learn, and embrace all that he's yearned for but never understood. As his world crashes around him and the "moms'" deal with real-life issues every couple can relate to - questions of character, morality, resentments and "what might have been" - the film transcends the formula and becomes an intense study in family. The ties that bind are often fraught with doubt...and some are simply ripped away by complacency, resentment and the realities of what we give up to be who we ultimately become.
The way Buffalo comes full circle here is a tour-de-force, his best effort yet. Unassuming, yet so full of himself so as to risk everything to keep reality from intruding on his world. Julianne Moore is radiant - as always. I wish she were being submitted in the Supporting Actress category instead of Best Actress since she'd be a lock to finally win a well-deserved Oscar (she should have won for "Far from Heaven").
But ultimately - "Kids" is a classic character study of the definition of family, of dads, sisters, brothers and moms. Like Mary Tyler Moore's hateful mother-dearest in "Ordinary People" - Bening's no-holds-barred laser-focused and proud mom is one for the ages. Here, she's gifted and sarcastic, staunch and direct, loving, grateful, pragmatic but very much in love. Her interactions with her lover are casual, expected and tender - never exploitive to the viewer, but understood. These women have the lived-in quality of most long term couples I know - straight and gay. They're worn, but loving, celebrating and embracing the life they've created in the face of society's ongoing ignorance and distaste for gay families. Bening KNOWS it's not an easy life choice, but her spirit and deep sincere love shines thru even when the sharp, cruel edges of her character startle us. She's the tough mom, the bread-maker, the one who went for the dream (at another's expense), and made a home with the woman of her dreams. Bening is stunning - real, authentic and sympathetic - both in her spoken dialogue and in quiet unexpected shots of her amazing etch-a-sketch face which deliberately shows exactly what she's feeling, hearing, questioning, accepting, discovering and learning. It's a wonderful face, and a terrifyingly familiar character to anyone in a long-term relationship who has ever wondered "what if I wasn't with this person...who would I be?" While Moore's character ultimately experiences this specific collision of fate and doubt on screen, it is Bening who ultimately conveys the layers and textures of a proud woman, torn by reconciling the illusion of love with the consequences of living the lives we choose. Bening is over-due for Oscar love even though the competition this year will rival her two prior losses to Hilary Swank given the buzz for Natalie Portman in "Black Swan". In my mind, Bening's singular performance in "American Beauty" already puts her among the top 1% of our best actors, while "Bugsy", "Grifters" and "Running with Scissors" remind us of her range - and the rage she taps into from the gut. Only "American Beauty" comes close to her performance in "The Kids Are Alright" - and she deserves to be recognized and celebrated for her brilliant, no-holds-barred performance.
"The Kids are Alright" deserves to be widely seen by ANY couple in a long-term relationship, and especially career-couples with kids. The themes here are universal, despite the somewhat rare and obscure circumstances of the plot. It does help to remember that today, unconventional families -both traditional AND piecemeal - live on our block, or just down the street. Our kids play with their kids; the adults engage - or not - just as we do...we share dentists, playgrounds and car pools. And, in the end, even if we don't always see eye to eye (what neighbors do?) - we all want, crave and deserve the same thing ... to be happy, to have love, and to make a better future for our kids. "The Kids are Alright" is accessible, yet distant and obscure, but ultimately illuminating, with career-defining roles from Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo. A rare, beautifully rendered film about family that shatters myths and inspires self-reflection.