At its simplest, The Kids Are All Right is about two teenagers who seek out their sperm-donor father. But really the film is about family—from pretty much every angle you can imagine. The fourth feature from Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon) is rich and real, so textured that not a second of its 104 minutes seems superfluous. That it centers on a lesbian couple is, for the most part, as insignificant a detail as an on-screen pairing of a curvy blonde and tall, dark, and handsome man.
Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) met in college and decided to each conceive a child via artificial insemination. Now that Joni (Mia Wasikowska) is 18, her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is pushing her to follow through on her legal right to contact their mothers’ baby daddy. Joni’s hesitant but does it anyway, and soon they meet Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the wayward, motorcycle-riding owner of an organic farm and restaurant who says things like, “Right on!” and “I love lesbians!” during the initial phone call.
The siblings go through phases of liking and disliking Paul, who is a bit taken aback but otherwise willing to be a part of their lives. And so do their mothers, who agree to meet him when the kids ’fess up. Nic, a doctor, is the champion of passive-aggressiveness, and the dynamic between the five of them takes a similar tone—a mix of superficial politeness, sarcasm, irritation, and genuine warmth.
The latter comes mostly from Jules, a New Age-y sort who doesn’t follow through on the projects she starts and whose advice to Laser regarding his obnoxious best friend amounts to, “Is he helping you grow?” Her latest venture, a landscaping business, allows her to know Paul better when she does some work at his home. She likes what she sees, much to Nic’s wine-fueled annoyance.
Hardly a note of The Kids Are All Right, which Cholodenko co-wrote with Stuart Blumberg, feels unnatural. (Sitcom-y, perhaps, as when Paul drives Joni home past curfew on his bike.) The inverse of this year’s earlier, ridiculous ruckus over gay actors playing straight characters proves true here: Bening and Moore may be A-listers, but there’s nothing forced about Nic and Jules’ relationship, sexual or otherwise. (Granted, Moore got some practice in her last film, Chloe.) Bening is especially terrific as the Alpha Mom, vocal and cutting even when she’s not guzzling a bottle of red; when Jules gently points out during their lunch with Paul that Nic’s on her fourth glass of wine, the latter retorts, “It’s my third, but thanks for counting!” Moore, meanwhile, provides much of the comic relief, particularly when she tries to explain to Laser why the couple watches gay-male porn, citing the “inauthenticity” of lesbian films that often feature actresses just pretending.
The tumbling consequences of Joni’s initial phone call are largely representative of everyone’s messy family lives. There’s the distance that wedges itself into long-term romance, infidelity, brother-sister relationships, teenage rebellion, leaving the nest, and the difficulty of accepting that the person you spend the most time with is actually a douchebag. Of course, there’s also the central question of anonymous sperm donation and whether it’s wise to allow the children born of this artificial union to get to know their biological fathers. (Joni says she “gets it,” but then follows with: “Like we’re not enough, or something?”) Overall, Cholodenko’s film is about family, traditional or otherwise. And you don’t have to have two moms to relate.
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky Directed by Jan Kounen
The development of a perfume shouldn’t be more exciting than the development of a love affair. But the heat that allegedly fuels Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky—which also wins for the year’s snooziest title—is absent in this superficially sumptuous biopic. Based on a book by Chris Greenhalgh, Jan Kounen’s adaptation is rife with longing stares, single tears, consumption, and purple postcoital scenes, like one in which sunlight actually beams through the trees. The film, however, is as lacking in emotional color as Coco’s black-and-white wardrobe and décor.
The story begins in 1913 Paris, when Chanel attends the first performance of Stravinsky’s disastrous The Rite of Spring. (The audience’s raucous reaction is both funny and puzzling, with comments that range from “Go back to Russia!” to “Call a dentist!”) Chanel’s intrigued, but isn’t introduced to the composer until seven years later, when she is a successful designer and he a penniless artist with mouths to feed. The attraction between them is, allegedly, immediate, and Chanel invites Stravinsky and his family to stay indefinitely at her large Parisian home. They eventually make music together—so to speak.
The most significant factor in the film’s anemia is that only one of these icons feels like an icon. As played by Mads Mikkelsen, Stravinsky is a passive, plain man with a plain wife (Elena Morozova) and vanilla children. We mostly see him tinkering at the piano; except for one burst of angst-filled noise, nothing about him cries genius.
Chanel, on the other hand, is magnetic: Anna Mouglalis is gorgeous with her character’s bob, designer clothes, and wriggly walk. She sees what she wants and takes action. She’s very much in charge at her shop, insisting on perfection in everything from her employee’s nails to a dress seam. This woman is progressive; even when she comes off as a bit of a tyrant, you respect her. And, yes, the creation of her famous perfume is exciting, with hundreds of flower petals contributing to hundreds of scent combinations, the main scientist growing increasingly demoralized as Chanel rejects each one. Until, of course, she’s given No. 5.
There’s a reason besides Chanel’s hotness that draws Stravinsky to her. His wife is ill and mostly bedridden, and even if she weren’t, Morozova’s perpetually loony grin might have pushed away even the most faithful of men. The film sinks when it turns its focus on his family, particularly a languid late-chapter sequence that involves a lot of staring, almost no dialogue, and weird shots that show the characters aged. Being that it takes places in 1920 Paris, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky has plenty of eye candy. But its plot is boring fluff.