The Kids Are All Right is the story of a marriage, whether it’s a legally recognized one or not. The spouses live amid the comforts, compromises, and long-recognized shortcomings of a decades-long partnership as they raise two teenagers. They alternately work well together, exhaust each other’s patience, contradict each other, drive each other away, and unite for the greater good. The fact that they’re both women (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) is neither beside the point, nor the whole of it. Working with co-writer Stuart Blumberg, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon) has created an intimate, funny, occasionally upsetting depiction of a loving family that is, like so many families, often only just functional.
Bening plays a doctor and the family’s primary breadwinner, a flinty, demanding woman who loses her ability to censor herself after two glasses of wine. She’s come to specialize in suggesting vulnerability beneath a hard surface, and that skill rescues the character from villainy as she nags her children—believably realized by Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson—and neglects Moore, who’s put her professional ambition on hold for decades, though her passiveness has limits. They’re stumbling by as Wasikowska prepares to leave for college, but what passes for order in their house gets upset when the children contact the sperm donor used to father them. A successful, free-spirited restaurateur played by Mark Ruffalo—first seen shouldering a basket of vegetables and looking like the embodiment of virility—he’s asked whether he’s interested in meeting his genetic offspring, and quickly answers yes. When he meets them, he begins to recognize a piece missing from his own life.
From there, an already-complicated situation grows more complicated still. As Ruffalo gets to know the kids and their mothers, dynamics shift, new alliances form, and neither Cholodenko nor the cast pull back from capturing the situation in all its tender awkwardness. Every scene looks like the result of years of accumulation, be it the affections and resentments that have piled up between Bening and Moore’s characters, or the clutter of their suburban L.A. home. Cholodenko’s casually observant style perfectly matches the cast’s thoughtful work, though the film ultimately proves more successful at creating messy situations than trying to resolve them: The final act finds character after character saying out loud what they’ve been expressing without words for much of the film. That’s a small failure amid tremendous successes, however, and one that arrives on the heels of beautifully realized scenes like a long Joni Mitchell-inspired dinner-conversation-turned-sing-along. In moments like these, the film almost seems to melt away as we observe lives being lived before our eyes, with neither the hurt nor the beauty filtered out.