Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right suggests what mainstream cinema could be in a kinder world. A rom-com of sorts, it centers on a lesbian couple, played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, but it’s remarkably unconcerned with defending their relationship from homophobia. Everyone in The Kids Are All Right — even the obnoxious boy who calls their son a “faggot” — accepts them as a married couple. Even after Moore’s character has sex with a man, she doesn’t spend her time puzzling over her exact sexual identity.
Nic (Bening) and Jules (Moore) live in a suburb of L.A. with their two teenage children, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska). Joni has just turned 18 and is about to leave for college. Laser asks her for help finding their biological father, as both kids were conceived through artificial insemination. Joni tracks down their mothers’ sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo). She discovers that he’s a chef who likes riding a motorcycle in his spare time. While Nic and Jules initially seem hostile to the idea of including Paul in their family, Jules winds up sleeping with him after signing him up as the first customer in her landscaping business.
Especially in its first half, The Kids Are All Right often feels like a sitcom. However, Cholodenko’s view of everyday life is highly textured, full of glancing details and observations. Although Bening and Moore are heterosexual, they make a convincing couple. Even their bickering and jealousy ring true. Ruffalo’s character seems like an older version of the drifter he played in Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me a decade ago. Paul’s laid-back facade — his mantra is practically ”Right on!” — conceals an inner loneliness assuaged by short-term relationships. Ruffalo may not be stretching himself here, but he establishes a convincing variation on a persona he’s established in other films.
Cholodenko’s treatment of sexuality is deceptively casual. Jules and Nic watch gay male porn while having sex; when their kids discover their hidden DVD collection, Jules tries to explain the appeal of man-on-man action to lesbians. When Jules and Paul begin their affair, the fact that she’s gay is only one of the reasons why it’s doomed. (For Paul, her sexuality is undoubtedly a bonus turn-on.) Jules and Nic live in a bubble of acceptance.
The film takes a handful of satirical pokes at their world, including a dinner scene whose participants brag about drinking hempmilk and making compost, but it clearly values this refuge from more hateful surroundings. The Kids Are All Right offers up a world where being gay is far from the most interesting or unusual thing about its characters. Nic and Jules are just another married couple, and a heterosexual man lives the most unsettled life of the bunch. In this respect, it’s practically a UFO in American cinema.