Tugs of war figure prominently in the latest indie-family drama, “The Kids Are All Right,” from television and movie director Lisa Cholodenko. The story centers on the push and pull inflicted on a couple of high-school kids (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) caught between their overprotective same-sex parents (Julianne Moore and Annette Bening) and the guy (Mark Ruffalo) whose sperm-bank donation made the children possible. Likewise, the movie is beset by rival interests, on the one side to scrutinize an alternative suburban family and on the other to do so within the confines of conventional screenwriting modes. “The Kids Are All Right,” like the combination of its bland title and likeable cast might suggest, feels a little lost in the middle — sometimes an unruly indie film and sometimes like just another cookie-cutter product. Mostly that combination comes across as a movie-length version of a topical Showtime series.
The story kicks off with the introduction of Joni (Wasikowska) and Laser (Hutcherson), whose parents, Nic (Bening) and Jules (Moore), happen to be lesbians. A comic drama, the movie gets a lot of light humor out of how comfortable Joni and Laser are with the situation. They refer to their moms as “moms,” as in “We don't want to hurt moms' feelings.” Still, something feels missing from the kids' lives and constant henpecking from the moms leads them to look up their biological father, Paul (Ruffalo), who turns out to be a single, virile entrepreneur with a cucumber-cool attitude missing from his newfound family's lives. He's a little dangerous but not really, and he gets to utter the funniest but most predictable line in the movie: “I love lesbians!”
The stage is thus set for a smorgasbord of personal growth, most of which surprisingly fails to materialize. While the story could have expressed the concerns and difficulties of being different — in California alone a ferocious battle is being waged over same-sex marriage — “The Kids Are All Right” chooses to ignore the social and political strife surrounding the issue of same-sex couples in order to concentrate on less-divisive topics such as parenting, growing up and jealousy. At first the decision feels like an attempt to normalize the situation; by not dwelling on the same-sex issue, “The Kids Are All Right” would contend everyone is, well, all right with it. Fair enough, but the more the movie presents its concerns the more we feel like something weightier is missing from the action.
Cholodenko, who wrote the film with Stuart Blumberg, strains to find conflict. Joni and Laser, unperturbed by their unusual family, are pushed into looking for their biological father by the typical frictions between children and their parents. They find him with a clunky swiftness. Evidently the donor agency is still around and it has had Paul's cell phone number all along. As the children soon learn, he could be no more perfect a male lead for an indie film, a goatee-sporting, organic-vegetable-farming restaurateur who rides a spiffy vintage motorcycle. No wonder they love him, and in order to gain the ire of Bening's Nic, the spiky haired, bread-winning physician of the family, the movie has to contrive for her an obstinate hatred of motorcycles.
Joni bears the brunt of Nic's aversion, and at first it seems as if the movie will hinge on this good girl's yearning to grow outside her parents' expectations and boundaries. The enchanting and precocious Wasikowska would have been a solid foundation on which to build a story, but unfortunately Joni's plight disappears into the background of the many other ideas that occupy the film, all interspersed with moments of comic relief and those Garage Band-y guitar strains that separate the episodes. Laser has a jerky friend who's becoming a bad influence. Nic and Jules wonder if Laser is gay. They feud with Joni about riding on Paul's motorcycle. They squirm around under the covers.
Everyone has a problem to address, and there aren't enough hands to juggle them all, or enough movie minutes. A final lurch into infidelity is such a jarring change of tone that Cholodenko forgets she's trying to offer up a comedy. Cholodenko's film has a problem similar to its anodyne title, which does little more than recall a famous rock song. You can sit back and be amused by its cleverness without ever being sure what it's about. (R) 104 min.