"You're an interloper," says Nic (Annette Bening) to Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the recently discovered sperm donor for the two teenage children she shares with her partner Jules (Julianne Moore) in The Kids Are All Right. It's an interesting choice of words - "interloper" - but a surprising one coming from filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko. In fact, she's inordinately fond of the concept.
In her films as both writer and director - 1998's High Art and 2002's Laurel Canyon - Cholodenko appears to have one dramatic scenario up her sleeve: the pansexual fallout that ensues when a seemingly happy couple's relationship is exposed to a charismatic...well, interloper. It's only because Cholodenko seems so attached to it that The Kids Are All Right misses a chance to be something special.
Cholodenko effectively establishes the domestic normalcy of the two-mommies Southern California household headed by Nic, a Type-A ob/gyn, and Jules, a less grounded sort working on her latest career change. So it's a disruption to the routine when their 15-year-old son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) decides he wants to meet the guy who provided half his genes, which his now-18-year-old sister Joni (Mia Wasikowska) can help facilitate. And restaurant owner Paul is just the kind of guy who can mix things up a little.
Cholodenko (working with co-screenwriter Stuart Blumberg) aims for a more humorous touch than usual, but for every sly, subtle line of dialogue, there's an improbably farcical moment like Nic and Jules' night of sex being interrupted by a blast of high volume from the gay porn movie they're watching. What elevates the material, even when it misfires, is three terrific lead performances. Bening plays the uptight matriarch with enough twists and turns that she feels fresh; Moore takes a standard midlife-crisis character arc, as she begins an affair with Paul, and gives it a sparkle of intelligence.
It's telling, however, that despite the movie's title, we haven't spent much time talking about the kids. Cholodenko doesn't grapple enough with how much Laser's desire for a male role model affects his need to meet Paul. Joni is largely defined by her reluctance to be sexually intimate, but the film similarly fails to connect her few scenes with Paul to that issue. The Kids Are All Right screams for the focus of the story to be on whether a father figure is something Joni and Laser really need, or just think they need - and Cholodenko ultimately doesn't seem all that interested in them.
This narrative may be Cholodenko's attempt to show that the bumps and bruises of a gay marriage are just like those in a straight marriage, but that only means she's telling too familiar a story. It's hard to tell from The Kids Are All Right whether the kids are all right, since when it comes to Cholodenko's preferred narrative, they're interlopers, too.