Yeah, folks, it’s Oscar season. Not duck season, not wabbit season, but Oscar season. It’s that time of year when my love/hate relationship with the mainstream film industry rears its ugly head, and I have weird internal conversations that go like this: “But the Oscars are so meaningless! It’s all industry politics!” “Well, yeah, but industry politics still means something. And the right movies get awarded, sometimes. You liked No Country for Old Men, right?” “That’s not the point! It’s all masturbatory self-congratulation. It’s a fluke if awards go to quality films, and they don’t even recognize the Honorary Award winners during the ceremony.” “But they have montages, and banter, and pretty dresses…”
This conversation goes on for a while, and it never gets resolved. I end up regarding the Oscars like any other highly flawed but still significant method of judging films: with a grain of salt. Or should I say a pillar of salt. (A whole salt mine?) In short, I treat it like the dog-and-pony-and-James-Franco show it so clearly is. The ceremony is really an accurate if broad mediation of Hollywood culture, after all. It’s shallow, glamorous, expensive, ratings-obsessed, but all in all fairly entertaining. Beyond that, the awards represent a loose consensus. All the acting, writing, director, and picture nominees are contained within a pool of just 16 films and these, for better or worse, are what the American film community recognizes as 2010’s best. Take from that what you will.
Having said my piece, I now jump into my abbreviated, last-minute Oscar nominee coverage. Between now and Sunday, I’ll rush to discuss as many of this year’s Big Ten as I have time for. (Click here to read my thoughts from last year.) So let’s begin! Last summer I was delighted that my local multiplex was offering up Lisa Cholodenko’s Sundance favorite The Kids Are All Right. It’s such a summery movie, too, full of warm California locations and fertile greenery. “Fertility” is a major watchword in this movie, too, since it’s all premised on two births via artificial insemination that led over time to the growth of a beautiful, functional family… even if it does have a few issues to work out.
Mia Wasikowski is Joni, one of these two kids, and she’s more than all right. She’s only a few months older than me (I feel like I say that all the time now about burgeoning movie stars!) and she looks very delicate and pale, which makes her Biff Loman-style disillusionment toward the film’s end even more heartbreaking. Joni is cerebral and well-behaved, but wants to start asserting her independence now that she’s college-bound. Her half-brother Laser can be something of an asshole, but he’s got a good heart. He doesn’t want to tear his family apartment; he’s just curious about how it got started.
It’s perfectly understandable—just as it is when their brittle, authoritative mom Nic bristles at sperm donor Paul’s intrusion into their family unit. Annette Bening’s Nic may overreact to minor incidents and overdo it on the red wine, but she still feels so cool. She’s outspoken, she’s competent, and she’s passionate (about her work, her family, Joni Mitchell). She might not be that tactful, but neither is she a bitch. She feels like someone it would be fun to sit down to dinner with. For that matter, so does Julianne Moore as Nic’s wife Jules. Even if she’s a little flaky and flighty at times, she’s still fucking Julianne Moore.
Mark Ruffalo as Paul completes the triangle. He’s not a bad guy, although he does become a homewrecker, The Kids Are All Right‘s equivalent of the classical Hollywood melodrama’s “other woman.” I already wrote a piece over at The Film Experience about Paul’s introduction through a David Bowie-scored sex scene, and I’m still impressed by Ruffalo’s (deservingly Oscar-nominated) performance and how well it slides into the textures of the overall film. Out of all this year’s Best Picture nominees, The Kids Are All Right is one of only two that you could really call “sexy.” In scene after scene, Ruffalo’s nonchalant but intense sexuality is almost palpable through the screen.
This is what I really love about The Kids Are All Right: how the performances and writing collide to forge deep, powerful characterizations. It’s a consistently funny movie, but it’s also extremely moving, because it makes you invest so heavily in this family and the love it’s grounded in. Nic and Jules may not be perfect wives, but they don’t have to be. They visibly love each other, and so to see all the damage that Jules’s affair has wrought on their relationship is devastating. These two mothers and two kids are just so right for each other that it’d be a cinematic injustice to wrench them apart. In scope and style, it’s a small, light movie, but at its core is the highest of all stakes: two people are in love, and that love is threatened.
Granted, it’s not exactly visually stunning. It’s modest and attractive, privileging the performers within each frame. It also has some uncomfortable implications, both in Jules’s never-addressed, subtly racist treatment of Luis, the Mexican gardener she employs, and in her willingness to sleep with Paul at the first available moment, which some critics have seen as endorsing the old “deep down all lesbians really want a man” fallacy. I confess the film has some issues to work out, and it occasionally compromises its own progressive virtues, but I think that’s too simplistic a reading of her behavior. “Human sexuality,” as she tells her son, “is complicated.”
This is the film’s approach, to not just human sexuality but also marriage (which Jules says is “fucking hard”), parenting, working, socializing, saying hello, and saying goodbye. It’s a very humanistic film, assuming good intentions in all of its characters and not judging them too harshly when (inevitably) they fuck up. It’s also flawlessly calibrated to adjust my emotions like a faucet, and I do not begrudge it that.
Within deceptively unimposing, even generic packaging, The Kids Are All Right conceals five great performances that work together like the gears in a watch, bound together by the strength of the warm, witty screenplay. Family can be painful, as we’ll see with many of this year’s Best Picture nominees. At least this time, the ordeal ends with our two torn-apart lovers holding hands once again.