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See It While You Can: The Kids Are All Right

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 28, 2010 9:00PM

the-kids-are-all-right.jpg In the ecosystem of the American Cinema, blockbusters are the blue whales. They compete with one another for the vast amounts of sustenance (ticket sales) they demand while the more numerous but smaller fish fight over what's left. There's thought to be a ready-made niche in this food chain for the summer indie crossover, a beast with the budget of a guppy who swells to many times its size. We're not talking moon shots like My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Usually more like the ten-times-smaller gross of Garden State. This year's best candidate for that role seems to be the affable, breezy and nearly universally-acclaimed The Kids Are All Right, which we are pretty happy to see is making lots of money on a per-screen basis but will need some more good weekends to stay afloat.

Despite its title, we're not talking about a documentary on The Who. In fact, apart from opening to teenagers skateboarding while a Vampire Weekend tune plays in the background and closing with MGMT's "The Youth," The Kids Are All Right is not a movie about kids. Not particularly, anyway. It would be most correct to say the movie is about the idea of family as we understand it in 21st century America. It's also a funny and smart movie that has the added virtue (unlike so many of those enormous blockbusters) of being an actually original tale.

Joni (Mia Wasikowska), having just turned 18, invites a little bit of chaos into the middle class ease of her Los Angeles home when she gives into her 15-year-old brother's wishes and they contact their biological father. Anntette Benning and Julianne Moore play the children's lesbian parents, and unsurprisingly the relationship with the stranger Paul (Mark Ruffalo) who had donated the sperm for both children so long ago, begins haltingly. Ruffalo's breezily charismatic biological father, a motorcycle-riding organic farmer and restaurateur who gives off "cool uncle" vibes but hasn't put in the work to score that "fatherly" aura, gradually becomes more intimately involved with his new-found relations.

This new constellation of relationships brings to the family introduces a tension, which plays out against the background of Joni's last summer before leaving for college. Director Lisa Cholodenko, who our Joe Erbentraut spoke with upon the film's release (High Art, Laurel Canyon), uses the nontraditional family structure to defamiliarize and explore these family dynamics from a new perspective, and the parents are forced to treat their child as an autonomous being just as she begins to see the parental units as not just authority figures but as people with feelings and desires as important to them as their own. Will the presence of Paul make this process easier or more difficult?

Wasikowska, who first impressed us as a patient on In Treatment and fresh off a starring role in the (who knew?) fifth highest-grossing film of all time is revelatory, and both Benning and Moore turn in excellent performances. Highly recommended for anyone not in the mood for whale.