Bening is stellar throughout The Kids Are All Right, playing a lesbian mother of two whose life is turned upside down after her kids track down their sperm donor, but she crosses over to transcendent during a dinner-table scene a little more than halfway through the film.
She’s making a good effort to befriend the donor (played with rakish charm by Mark Ruffalo) and is struck by the Joni Mitchell records in his vinyl collection. Tipsy on a little too much wine (as she is during much of the film), she launches into a full-throated rendition of ‘All I Want’ from Mitchell’s Blue.
Flush with embarrassed joy, she retreats to the bathroom and discovers evidence of a betrayal that shakes her to her core. She returns to the table and takes in the scene around her with quiet dignity as, through her eyes, you watch her entire world fall apart.
This dinner sequence is the emotional centerpiece of co-writer/director Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, a funny and heartbreaking human drama of the sort you just don’t see very often.
The movie this one reminds me of most is 2000’s You Can Count On Me. That relationship drama was also modest in its ambitions but powerful in its emotionality. It, too, depicted a charming outsider (also played by Mark Ruffalo, in what remains his best work to date) upsetting the rhythms of a family that was starting to crack beneath the surface. It was similarly frank about sex and love and the complexities of human desire.
Movies like these require spot-on writing and acting to work, and The Kids Are All Right has both in spades. Bening and Julianne Moore (who plays her wife) have a comfortable chemistry — it’s easy to accept them as an old married couple. Ruffalo plays the sperm donor as a scruffy free-spirit eager to connect with each member of the family — sometimes a little too eager. These three bounce off of each other (and off of the children, played ably by Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska) beautifully.
Cholodenko’s script, co-written with Stuart Blumberg, was inspired by the decision she made with her partner to have a baby via sperm donor. She wondered what might happen should the kid seek out the donor later in life. Whether the actual events in the film bear any resemblance to her own experience, I don’t know, but every moment feels genuine. I was especially impressed with the writing in a couple of mealtime scenes — one is an outdoor lunch where the mothers first meet Ruffalo’s character, and the other is the extraordinary Joni Mitchell scene I described above.
The great thing about this film is that it could easily be about a straight couple. Replace the Mark Ruffalo character with a surrogate mother and you can explore the same issues of coming of age, infidelity and the importance of family. And that universality makes The Kids Are All Right just about the best argument for gay marriage I can imagine.
A gay marriage can be just as dysfunctional and screwed up as a “regular” marriage, and just as resilient. Children of gay parents can be just as stubborn and rebellious as your kids, and just as loving.
By not trying to be a message film at all, The Kids Are All Right delivers a powerful one.