There's a scene near the end of The Kids Are All Right that will always stick with me. Joni (Alice in Wonderland's Mia Wasikowska) is an 18-year-old freshman who's just been dropped off at college of by her parents, lesbian couple Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), and her 15-year-old brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson). She's asked for a moment alone in her dorm room, but is surprised and slightly panicked when she steps into the hallway and finds that they've disappeared.
They're still somewhere on campus, of course, but that feeling is played so subtly and perfectly in this film that I know I'll always remember it. We all know what it's like to be connected to family, real or created, and we all know how scary it can seem when it's not there.
This movie is ingenious in conception and execution. It's about those two kids and their parents, and what happens when they seek out the sperm donor dad who contributed his genes to both of their moms. He turns out to be organic restaurateur Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a laidback, go-with-the-flow California dreamer that's never been married and is pretty much a big kid grown bigger.
I'm not sure if it's because I'm a laidback, big kid myself who's never been married, or because, as someone who was adopted, I look at family as all the people I've been lucky enough to connect with in my life...but I could easily relate to Paul's character, and found this unconventional (yet conventional) family extremely fascinating. It's interesting how Paul comes into the lives of this well-established unit and turns it upside down in ways humorous and heartbreaking, and always human.
Everyone in the film is flawed and believable, and the film does an amazing job showing how the slightest utterance, or misinterpreted conversation, can have devastating, stinging effects. Josh Hutcherson is perfectly cast as the sensitive teen athlete who's determined to meet, but is cautiously wary of his biological dad. Wasikowska is solid as the smart and perceptive Joni, named after Joni Mitchell. Shaggy Mark Ruffalo is ideal as the easy charmer who means well but hasn't reached full, mature adulthood. And Bening and Moore are both deserving Oscar contenders as the parents. Bening brings a distinct flair of lived-in authority to her role as the family's breadwinner, a workaholic doctor, and Moore is thoroughly engaging as her more relaxed landscape architect partner.
The movie feels like real life in the best sense. These are people you'll recognize because they make the same mistakes, and have the same emotional ups and downs that we all have over the course of our lives. The trailers have played up the film's humor as the new dad makes inroads with the family, but that's really just a part of the story. What lingers in your head and heart is the care and authenticity the actors, and director-co-writer Lisa Cholodenko and her team have poured into this project. It will make you laugh and cry, and is easily one of the best movies released this summer.