The Kids Are All Right (Or Are They?)

In a rare move for me, I saw two first-run movies in the movie theatre over the last two weekends, Cyrus and The Kids Are All Right. Both were Sundance-darlings; both were about relationships – between lovers and between parents and children; both were set in sunny California and both had good casts. However, that’s about where the similarities end because in the all important category of “Was it good?”, the answer is split.

Cyrus was a hit at Sundance and has been building buzz ever since. But I felt let down by the film. It wasn’t entirely bad but it certainly didn’t live up to the hype. Jonah Hill stars as the titular Cyrus, a 22 year old guy with serious mommy issues. Mommy, also known as Molly, is played by the lovely Marisa Tomei, who does warm, quirky and sharp-tongued very well. Molly and Cyrus have a disturbingly close, co-dependent relationship that is challenged when Molly meets and starts dating John, played by the versatile John C. Reilly.

Over a long hour and a half, we watch as John and Cyrus vie for Molly’s sole affection. Cyrus and Molly are thisclose and it seems entirely unhealthy. The movie doesn’t try to portray this relationship as a good one, but it also doesn’t appropriately spread the blame. For example, in one confrontational scene between Cyrus and John, both men say Molly isn’t to blame for Molly and Cyrus’s weird, Electra-infused mother-son relationship. The thing is: Molly is to blame; maybe not entirely, but certainly in part. The fact that rising screenwriters Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass let Molly off the hook really bothered me.

Sure, some personality traits are innate, but others are learned. Though Molly may have rightly recognized early on that Cyrus was special and needed a different kind of attention than other kids, she didn’t need to smother him; she didn’t need to foster or enable the unhealthy, territorial and dependent impulses that are palpable in her man-child of a son. Instead, Molly could have given Cyrus some special attention while still nurturing his sense of independence. Perhaps, then, her fledgling relationship with John (who, to be fair, has his own baggage) might not have skidded about the way it did.

And, yes, John does have his own issues. Issues that the filmmakers didn’t fully explore or acknowledge, in my opinion. John is still hung up on his ex-wife, Jamie, who is about to remarry. While he does seem enamored of Molly, there are side glances and hushed conversation that tell the audience, or at least me, that he still has a thing for Jamie. While some viewers may see this as a nice, congenial relationship between exes, I see it differently.

Cyrus was supposed to be a quirky, funny counter-programming little gem but instead it was a timid, mildly funny indie movie pebble with a trite ending.

On the other hand, The Kids Are All Right 100% lived up to the hype. (Before we even begin, though, I have to say kudos to the filmmakers for properly spelling “all right” as two words, instead of using the incorrect spelling sweeping the nation, alright. Also sweeping the nation and totally wrong: Gotta. I recognize that in the vernacular we all use “gotta” in lieu of “got to”. That’s fine, I suppose, even though in most cases it should actually be “have to”. But there’s a Black Eyed Peas song entitled “I Gotta Feeling.” That’s just flat out wrong. You “got a” feeling. You don’t “got to” feeling. Just wrong. But I digress…)

This is a modern story about relationships. The set up is that Jules and Nic (Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, respectively,) have been married for about 20 years. They have two children, Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson, respectively) both of whom were conceived from sperm donations by Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Joni has just turned 18; it is the summer before she starts college and Laser convinces her to try to contact Paul. (Donation rules preclude a child under 18 from making contact with the donor.) Paul then comes into the family’s life and for a delightful hour and a half, we watch what happens.

But really, like I said above, this is a story about relationships. The above mentioned plots points are just devices to explore what happens to a marriage over 20 years; what happens when a child wants to assert his/her independence; what happens when an interloper suddenly comes into your life. Now, I’m neither married nor a parent so I can’t fully speak to the veracity of what was depicted. (Though, from my observations, it seems like screenwriters Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg successfully captured the raw and honest connections and struggles inherent in marriage and parenthood.) I am a daughter, though, and I did go off to college so I can say, without giving too much away, that they nailed the children’s emotions: Loving you parents but wanting your independence and wanting to be treated like an adult. The penultimate scene in the dorm room, during which the daughter, Joni, struggles with getting what she wants, was pitch perfect.

Helping to tell the story were beautiful gardens and delicious looking food. Paul, you see, is an organic gardener and the proprietor of a cleverly titled LA eatery, WYSIWYG. This is a computer term which translates to “what you see is what you get” and the moment the restaurant’s signage appeared on screen, I knew exactly the kind of place it was: A restaurant that serves simple, sophisticated and scrumptious meals made out of fresh, in-season ingredients whose taste is enhanced with just a little salt and pepper instead of being hidden with chemicals, processed foods and heart-attack inducing sauces. I wanted to eat everything on screen! (Inspired, when I got home that night I cooked a dinner of grilled watermelon, assorted tomatoes tossed in extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, and garnished with just a little bit of creamy and tangy crumbled Greek feta. It was delicious!)

Also helping to tell the story were great performances from everyone. Julianne Moore and Annette Bening had terrific chemistry and seemed to get the nuances of a long-married couple just right. They complemented each other very well, even if one of their gripes is that they don’t compliment each other very often. Mia Wasikowska, an Aussie who does a nearly flawless American accent, was a natural as an 18 year girl on the cusp of womanhood. She did wonders with just the quiver of her lip. As Jules and Nic’s son, Laser, Josh Hutcherson was entirely impressive. While I was watching the movie, I thought he looked familiar but it wasn’t until I got home and looked him up on that I realized he was the little kid from the delightful little movie Little Manhattan. (Add it to your Netflix queue: It’s a sweet story about first loves.) If there’s any justice in the world, the adorable Hutcherson will have a steady career and the tweens and teens will start to swoon over him the way they (unjustifiably) do over Robert Pattinson.

And rounding out the cast is the underrated yet prolific Mark Ruffalo. Let’s just say it: Mark Ruffalo is a handsome man; you ruffle his hair, get some scruff on his face and dirt on his hands, as he appears in this movie, and he’s one sexy dude. The bonus is that he’s a fantastic actor. He can do funny (Safe Men!); he can do serious (Shutter Island, We Don’t Live Here Anymore); and, as if there were any doubt, The Kids Are All Right proves he sure can do charming, too. Paul struggles throughout the film to find his place with his new found kids and the women who’ve raised them and the talented Ruffalo doesn’t miss a beat.

The Kids Are All Right is currently in limited release (very limited: This weekend it only played in three theatres in Manhattan), but when it does make its way to a town near you, run to the theatre! This sweet, touching portrait of a family is wonderfully contemporary but its themes are classic, making it one for the canon.

(Read the NYTimes rave review for The Kids Are All Right.)