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“The Kids Are All Right,” But Their Parents Might Need Some Help

“The Kids Are All Right,” But Their Parents Might Need Some Help (photo)

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Aside from the fact that they’re lesbians, “The Kids Are All Right” assures us, Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) are exactly like any other middle-class, middle-aged couple. Nic is a doctor, while Jules has stayed at home to raise the kids — Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), both in high school — and try out of a series of so far unsuccessful careers.

Sure, the passion’s not what it used to be, and they’ve each got their resentments — Nic can be uptight and controlling, Jules flaky and needy — plus, their daughter and son are growing into sometimes difficult adults with minds of their own. Still, things are pretty good, and the four are in all ways but the obvious one a standard nuclear family, until their world’s thrown off its axis by the unexpected addition of Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the previously anonymous sperm donor who is the children’s biological father.

Given how hot-button a topic gay marriage remains, it’s understandable that co-writer/director Lisa Cholodenko would want to place the normality of Nic and Jules’ domestic life front and center: A family is a family, regardless of the parents’ sexuality. But the consequence of that fact is that whatever the gender arrangement, Jules and Nic’s marriage problems aren’t any more interesting than, and can be just as exasperating as, those of any other bourgeois Los Angeles clan.

07082010_kidsareallright3.jpgThe two squabble about Laser’s burnout best friend, whether Nic’s love of wine is really just a love of drinking and if Jules is ever going to make something of her latest endeavor, an environmentally friendly landscaping business. They use words like “proactive” and, in the interest of openness, overshare with their son about their porn choices. “The Kids Are All Right” is adamantly not a “gay film,” downplaying the importance of its characters’ sexuality — but, perversely, it’s the complexities of that sexuality that make it an intriguing, tolerable comedy.

Joni turns 18, and at her brother’s urging requests contact information for their donor from the sperm bank. That his “stuff” was ever put to use comes as news to Paul, but he’s game to meet with his newfound offspring. He’s game for just about anything — a stylishly scruffy, almost terminally laid back bachelor, Paul has the marshmallowy vibe of someone whose life has glided along without requiring the investment of any effort. He owns a local-food restaurant, a motorcycle and a house in the hills, and is involved, in a no-strings-attached fashion, with his beautiful business partner (Yaya DaCosta, late of “America’s Next Top Model”).

Paul’s life is so unfettered that the idea that he’s fathered children, even in the most removed way, provides him with a welcome solidity and opportunity for introspection — he’s in his 40s, but has been living like he’s in his 20s, and it turns out he likes Joni and Laser, and they take to him.

07082010_kidsareallright2.jpgWhile the kids at first keep their relationship with Paul a secret, eventually “the moms” find out, and he’s grudgingly invited over to lunch, though Nic worries that Paul’s presence is a sign that she and Jules have been inadequate as parents.

But there’s no denying biology, and the fact is that while Nic and Jules are in so many ways traditional, they needed a little outside assistance to conceive their children, and those children are now curious about the man with whom they share half of their genetic material.

Less expected is the not-so-platonic pull that connection exerts on Jules, to whom Paul offers a much-needed gig shaping up his overgrown backyard. “I just keep seeing my kids’ expressions in your face,” she says. Paul flirts in part because of the thrill of the forbidden. For Jules, it’s because she feels distant from and unappreciated by Nic, but also, you suspect, because it somehow feels a little less like cheating to become involved with someone who’s already involved, in a small but essential way, with her family.

The “The Kids Are All Right”‘s performances are great across the board, with Bening, Moore and Ruffalo expertly embodying distillations of the kinds of roles they each play best — brittle, scattered and charmingly unreliable, respectively. Ruffalo, in particular, is so genial that I felt caught short when the film turned on him.

07082010_kidsareallright6.jpgWhile over at dinner, Paul toasts “to an unconventional family,” but “The Kids Are All Right” turns out to not share those feelings of boho inclusiveness. For a film that’s so warm, both emotionally and visually — D.P. Igor Jadue-Lillo makes Los Angeles look like a golden-hued Shangri-la of sun-dappled streets and backyard gazebos — “The Kids Are All Right” turns out to be strikingly black and white in its embrace of straightforward family values.

And so Paul is an intruder and a usurper, and this isn’t actually a story of a love triangle but of a troubled marriage, and lesbians can have just as conventional a family as anyone else. It’s certainly not a message I begrudge, but it does seem a little simpler than the richer, more nuanced portraits that have preceded it deserve.

“The Kids Are All Right” opens in limited release July 9th.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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