Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, in 'The Kids Are All Right'

Dir. Lisa Cholodenko
(2010, R, 104 min)
★ ★ ★

If Nicole Holofcener had helmed The Kids Are All Right, it might have been a great film. Holofcener, as she showed most recently in her New York-set comedy Please Give, specializes in tricky interpersonal relationships between women and adds subtle layers of subtext to her stories and characters. By contrast, co-writer and director Lisa Cholodenko stays mostly on the surface of her subject, making Kids at first a sitcom, like a truncated version of Modern Family, and then a melodrama of betrayals and heartbreak. It’s a good sitcom and a good melodrama, bolstered by terrific performances and a few scenes of genuine reflection, but sometimes it feels like a missed opportunity.

Julianne Moore and Annette Bening star as married partners Jules and Nic, who assume a customary odd-couple configuration: Jules is a free spirit with uncertain career aspirations, and Nic is a perfectionist doctor with impossibly high standards. Using a sperm donor, each has given birth to a child: Joni (Alice in Wonderland’s Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson) — we’re not told who got the naming rights for Laser, but I’m guessing it wasn’t Nic.

Joni has just turned eighteen; now legally an adult, she is able to request her biological father’s information. He turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who operates a restaurant and grows his own food. When Jules and Nic chose him, his profile described him as a student in international relations, but now they learn he dropped out of college. He learns by doing, he says. Not what they had in mind.

Wackiness ensues. The first half of the film is a broad comedy that favors situations over character depth, such as a misunderstanding about Laser’s friendship with his best friend Clay (Eddie Hassell) and the discovery of Jules and Nic’s secret stash of videos. Then comes a major development between characters that is played at first as farce but sows the seeds for a more serious second half. The film begins to consider how an outsider can not only generate hijinks but reveal the cracks already present in the family dynamic. Paul is a catalyst, but nothing happens because of him that hadn’t already been brewing under the surface.

The film could have used more moments like the quiet shots of Nic during a pivotal dinner, or a late scene where Joni finds herself searching for her parents and brother after sending them away. The ambivalence of family: We fight to get free, but hope they’re still there when we need them.