Independent films are a cornerstone of filmmaking that has been around in one form or another since the medium’s birth, but they really came to prominence as a reaction to the major film studios’ domination over the industry. In perhaps the earliest example, United Artists was established to wrest control away from the five major studios. But, somewhere along the way, probably in the ’80s, coinciding with the formation of the Sundance Institute and the success of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, “indie” became a genre of its own, marked by a certain tone and quirky approach to characters and plot. While plenty of fine films have been produced under this influence, the genre faces the same problems that plague any movement which becomes a method, and that’s that what was once fresh starts to become stale. What once felt authentic and real now seems artificial and fake.
That problem encapsulates my negative criticisms towards Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right. It stars Annette Benning as Dr. Nicole or ‘Nic’ and Julianne Moore as Jules as two longtime lesbian partners who are raising a 15-year-old son named Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and a soon-to-be 18-year-old named Joni (Mia Wasikowska). After Joni turns 18, Laser requests that she dig up information about their biological father. She agrees, and the information traces their donor to a man named Paul played by Mark Ruffalo. Paul owns an organic restaurant and seems to be living an ideal bachelor life, yet finds himself interested in meeting Laser and Joni. After the arranged meeting between them, Nic and Jules find out about it and insist on meeting him themselves. Pretty soon, all involved find their world turned upside down.
Yes, The Kids Are All Right has “hip, modern, quirky indie film” written all over it from the first frame to the last. It’s not so much a problem that the film wears its genre on its sleeve as that it wraps it up under the pretense of being a genuine, realistic depiction of an “alternative” family life. Much of it comes down to the screenplay, which is just too traditionally structured and predictable to bring that kind of true-to-life spontaneity that you get from the best indie films. It begins idealistically, develops clichéd conflicts, then resolves them through superficial sentimentality. Essentially, it falls into the trap that so many modern indie films do: it’s a mainstream, big studio work in all but budget, with all of the grit and grime of the best of its kind absorbed and assimilated into a neat and tidy system.
That’s not to say that The Kids Are All Right has nothing good going for it; it boasts a stellar cast that turns in award worthy performances. Annette Benning and Julianne Moore are especially outstanding as the two mothers, and as good as they are alone, they’re even better together. In a film that’s too full of artifice, they really bring out the heart and soul of the great work that could have been. It certainly helps that they are the two best-written characters as well. Writer/Director Cholodenko is gay herself, and she’s at her best when she’s drawing from her own experiences; the same could even be extended to her previous film, High Art, which also featured a lesbian relationship. She mentions in the commentary how the idea for the film came to her when she and her partner were looking for a sperm donor, and she ended up writing the film with the help of Stuart Blumberg, who added a much-needed male perspective to the script.
The best moments are almost wholly reserved for the scenes involving Moore and Benning, while the two children and Ruffalo’s Hatfield get the short end of the stick. It’s not that they get less screen time, but merely that their characters are much more shallow and archetypal, lacking the 3-dimensionality of the women. The kids suffer more from this than Ruffalo, whose natural charm is able to make more out of the character than what is on the page. I get the sense that Cholodenko wanted to be fair to Ruffalo’s Paul and not turn him into a despicable misogynist, as too easily happens in movies directed by women (not that male directors/writers are better at portraying women). To be fair, he’s not nearly as bad as he could’ve been, yet, I can’t help but feel that he gets shafted in the end when all of the other characters get their chance at redemption.
Predictably, given the attentive focus to character, plot and acting, the film’s style is minimal to the point of being nonexistent. I tend to think that cinematography and editing are the two elements that suffer the most in such independent films that are more out to tell stories through literary methods (plot, character) rather than through cinematic ones. It always tends to make for films that are more like television or theater (even if good television and theater) than good cinema. The common protestation (and it’s one that Cholodenko makes in the commentary) is that when you have good actors and good characters, the camera should just get out of their way and allow them to tell the story. There’s nothing wrong with that in the abstract, except that you’re throwing away a major tool that aids tremendously in the telling of that story, essentially removing one layer of what the medium is capable of doing.
I tend to feel that none of that would matter if the film didn’t feel so emotionally manipulative to me. The actors save it from being a complete waste, but I wish they were in a film that deserved them. Perhaps I’m being too harsh since there are other good things to say about the film; it does manage to be genuinely funny in many parts, especially during Jules’ encounter with her Mexican gardener while she is having an affair with Paul. I also applaud Cholodenko’s refusal to reduce her characters down to heroes and villains; every character is both selfish and caring at times, all driven by their own motivations, insecurities, and unique relationships. Cholodenko also does a good job of navigating the complex emotional minefield that comes with the dynamics of marriage and parenthood. It’s just too bad that that portrayal is wrapped up in a film that falls into all of the artificially quirky sand traps of modern indie filmmaking.