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The Kids Are All Right

Modern flick finds old-fashioned laughs in nontraditional family structures

Maintaining families always involves challenges. It can be especially awkward when the teenage son of two lesbians discovers his mothers' cache of gay male porn. If not all of us can say, "Yeah, I've been there," such awkward, messy moments can inevitably come up while staying married and raising children to adulthood.

In The Kids Are All Right, director/co-writer Lisa Cholodenko finds universal forms of humor in some nontraditional family dynamics, not to mention bedroom habits. A hit at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, The Kids Are All Right makes its national release amid a national debate over gay marriage. Cholodenko's star-driven comedy abstains from politics but demonstrates that atypical civil unions can be just as flawed and loving as nuclear families.

Longtime companions Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) adore and nurture their teenage kids Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser — yes, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) — although neither of the "momses" qualifies as a stereotypical mother. Nic, a doctor, serves as the family financial provider and tends to lay down the law, while Jules tends to be the more casual, hands-on parent, although she's also frustrated with her inability to carry her career ideas — like a landscaping business — to completion.

When Joni turns 18, she decides to use her option to contact the anonymous sperm donor who fathered both her and her younger brother Laser. Their father turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the owner of an organic restaurant with its own garden, so he's steeped in images of fecundity and phallic symbols. Nonplussed at the thought of meeting the kids he didn't know he had, Paul discovers that he likes Joni and Laser, and enjoys dispensing fatherly advice without taking actual responsibility.

Ruffalo adds just a hint of swagger to Paul's laid-back demeanor, and the "momses," as the kids call Nic and Jules, respond to him with mixed emotions. Nic bristles at having a stranger intruding in their lives and inadvertently undermining their parental authority: "I don't want to time-share our kids with anybody," she snaps. Jules finds Paul's free-spirited encouragement refreshing, compared to Nic's judgmental impatience with her. His influence exacerbates fault lines in Nic and Jules' marriage.

The Kids Are All Right occasionally proves a little too aware that it's cooking a Guess Who's Coming to Dinner for 21st century family structures, and takes pains to give Bening and Moore each an emotional speech, in close-up, as is to telegraph their Oscar aspirations. Despite driving the action for the first act, Jodi and Laser take a backseat to the grown-ups' conflicts, although it's hard to complain given that Bening and Moore give such compelling variations on their familiar performance styles.

The film itself could share some of Paul's DNA, given its earthy sense of ease. The Kids Are All Right delivers characters and situations exaggerated just enough to be laugh-out-loud funny, but credible enough to feel as surprising and fleshed-out as real life.