Lisa Cholodenko earned her indie cred with three films in six years that each focused on trials and tribulations specific to women. However, she's taken another six years to follow up her last movie, and the wait has been more than worth it.
The Kids Are All Right opens with a seemingly happy nontraditional family getting ready to send their oldest daughter off to college. Type-A controlling doctor Nic (Annette Bening) and her free-wheeling wife, Jules (Julianne Moore), have been together for over two decades. With the help of the same sperm donor, they each birthed a child, and raised both in a tight nuclear family. Joni (Mia Wasikowska) is a straight-A student leaving in a few weeks for college, while 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is drifting toward a slacker's life with the help of his obnoxious best friend. The foursome's surface contentment gets shaken after Joni, at Laser's urging, makes contact with the sperm donor, a free-spirited restaurateur named Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Paul is smitten with the kids, meets "the moms" (as they're referred to by Joni and Laser), and eventually hires Jules to do some landscaping for him. As family dynamics shift due to Paul's influence, Nic begins to resent him, and when lustful cravings flare between Paul and Jules the entire family threatens to splinter.
Some films are about plot, but The Kids Are All Right is about the characters. Cholodenko gives each of the five main characters complexity and depth, and her refusal to make any of them an easy villain or hero makes the movie not only her best, but one of the best of the year. Nic and Jules each carry pain and recrimination that will be familiar to anybody in a long-term relationship, and Bening and Moore each subtly let those bad feelings rise to the surface. They are both alternately infuriating and sympathetic. Ruffalo never loses sight of Paul's best instincts -- he is a quick read of other people and he has a strong work ethic -- but those talents go hand in hand with his emotional selfishness. Most of his scenes are with Moore, and it's pretty special when two actors as talented and naturalistic as those two have material that allows them to explore human behavior rather than service a plot -- their characters' attraction to each other is awkward, intense, and thoroughly understandable.
The teen characters are just as multifaceted. Joni's first steps toward rebellion are both poignant and infuriating, and Wasikowska has an uncommon knack for simultaneously frustrating us while making us care for her -- for a 20-year-old with such an uncommonly pretty face, she's capable of indicating a great deal of emotion behind those beautiful eyes. Hutcherson turns what could easily be a standard-issue troubled teen into a specific person by making us see Laser's inherent goodness. He might not be sure enough of himself to share his feelings, but we never lose the sense that he'll do the right thing if only somebody shows him he can.
It's rare to see an ensemble this strong, and the credit should go to Cholodenko and her co-screenwriter, Stuart Blumberg. They infuse the characters with a real sense of history -- we feel like we've been right there along with Nic and Jules for their entire marriage. And while each of the actors has at least one show-stopping monologue, they're all so talented that these scenes never feel like actors showing off, but rather like real people having been forced to the point where they have to say something.
Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right stands alongside Nicole Holofcener's Please Give as two of the best films of the year, and while it's surely a coincidence that both would hit theaters in the months following Kathryn Bigelow's Best Director Oscar win, it's hard to shake the sense that we're in a moment where independent-minded female filmmakers are giving audiences some of the most challenging and truthful films in America.