‘The Kids’ is admirable for telling it like it is

Posted Aug. 12, 2010, at 1:20 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:50 p.m.

In theaters

“The Kids Are All Right,” directed by Lisa Cholodenko, written by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, 104 minutes, rated R.

Lisa Cholodenko’s new dramedy, “The Kids Are All Right,” features a story that’s about as complex as they come. It’s funny, it’s human, it pushes boundaries plenty still refuse to face, it challenges those boundaries, it supports them and then it tries to destroy them while also making an effort to understand them.

Simply due to its subject, some will vilify it without seeing it. Their loss. Others with open minds will seek it out and understand why they’ll be hearing more about this movie come awards season. The performances are that good, but what else would you expect from this cast?

The film is about two lesbians in a long-term committed relationship, their relationships with their two teenage children, and their new relationship with their former sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who runs a rustic restaurant and who enters their lives unexpectedly.

At least he does for Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening). The same can’t be said for their son and daughter, 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson), who make a phone call that causes all sorts of unrest.

Since Joni and Laser are Paul’s offspring (Nic had one child, Jules the other), they’re half-siblings. They also are at the age when they are curious about their lineage. Since Joni is an adult, she’s allowed to ask the donor agency whether they will tell her who donated sperm to their mothers. If Paul agrees to come forward, they’ll meet their biological father. Naturally, he does so — and off goes the story, riding along rails that are at once unique to this family and absolutely familiar to all families.

That’s the thing about “The Kids Are All Right” — it doesn’t make an issue of the fact that its focus is on a gay couple. Nic and Jules could be any couple doing their best to raise two reasonably happy, often difficult, well-adjusted and wholly annoying teens. Growing pains are experienced here, but not just by Joni and Laser. Jules and Nic are so deep into their relationship, they’re experiencing some growing pains of their own, the lot of which is amplified by Paul, who complicates the story considerably.

What’s admirable about “Kids” is that Cholodenko doesn’t trying to homogenize Nic’s and Jules’ relationship. Though she uses humor in her film, she doesn’t use it as a device to manipulate audiences into feeling more at ease with gay relationships. She doesn’t coddle them with laughter. She doesn’t use humor as a means to create faux tolerance.

The humor stems from the characters’ idiosyncrasies. It informs us about them. What we have here are two complex women who are in love, have a family, share a bed, and who are working through their own share of issues.

Throughout, the performances are fresh, natural, dark and alive. Bening is terrific as Nic, the controlling doctor who likes her wine almost as much as she likes her arguments. Moore is in full flight mode, in which she thrives, though this movie has enough depth to allow her to crash — and hard. As for Ruffallo, he’s as charming as you would expect, until that charm goes too far for the women in question. And when that happens, he’s reduced to being just a flawed human being, just like the rest of them.

In a world where pop culture shields us from the truth, this movie is something of a novelty. It isn’t afraid to tell it like it is.

Grade: A-

On Blu-ray disc

“Nanny McPhee,” directed by Kirk Jones, written by Emma Thompson, 91 minutes, rated PG.

Upon first glance, you’d swear her parents had commingled with rats.

There is, after all, the rather distressing issue of her overlapping front snaggletooth, which pinches her chin and suggests that somebody here took deep strokes in the shallow end of the gene pool. And then there’s her nose, which is a shock of twisted audacity, and her face, which has blossomed with warts.

Her ruddy complexion doesn’t exactly help her homely plight, nor does the fact that her straw-like hair is in desperate need of a hot oil treatment and that her gigantic bottom, draped in yards of black fabric, is large enough to accommodate showing a double feature — simultaneously and in widescreen.

The person in question is Nanny McPhee, the fearsome governess with the magical walking stick who is the title character of the movie, a sequel to which will be released in theaters next Friday.

Emma Thompson, who based the script on the “Nurse Matilda” books, stars in the lead and she’s the best part of the movie, absolutely in her element even though the movie itself isn’t nearly as fetching or as funny as she is herself.

Set in the late 19th century, the film stars Colin Firth as mortician Cedric Brown, who is busy mourning the death of his wife while trying his best to provide for his seven unruly children. In no time, his little monsters have gone through 17 nannies before they come upon the formidable McPhee.

It’s she who has the moxie to contain them. It’s also she who appears, as if by some unknown calling, to teach them life lessons. When each lesson is learned, it gives McPhee something of a dramatic makeover. The warts disappear, the weight comes off, the hair, the nose, the teeth soften. Just why is never explained, so one has to come to the conclusion that the only reason she cleans up so well is so that we can see that Emma Thompson is still attractive. What a relief.

The crux of the movie comes down to this — in order to keep his children, Cedric must protect the monthly check provided by his wealthy Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury), a haughty, diehard Victorian who demands that he marry within a month or she’ll cut him off completely, even if it means that his children will be divided into foster care.

Celia Imrie is Mrs. Quickly, the buxom blonde with the harsh curls and the saucy red mouth who is a few decades past her prime but more than happy to marry Cedric. Kelly Macdonald is Evangeline, the beautiful scullery maid on which so many hopes are pinned. It’s she, after all, who belongs with Cedric. But will they be together?

It doesn’t exactly take a trick walking stick to figure that out. “Nanny McPhee,” with its stale whiff of “Mary Poppins,” is good-natured and genial, but to a fault. A real sense of danger could have helped the movie, a little drama beyond, say, the food fight that comes at the end.

Its appeal likely will be for the youngest in the household. All others might wish that this nanny recalled a bit of Bette Davis’ nanny in 1965’s “The Nanny.” Cross that film with “Mary Poppins” and you would have had a movie on your hands.

Grade: B-

VisitWeekinRewind.com, the archive of Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s reviews, which appear Fridays and weekends. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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