To people made uncomfortable by the very idea of gay marriage, a movie about lesbian mothers titled The Kids Are All Right may smack of blatant propaganda. But while there’s no doubt that writer-director Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon) voted against California’s Proposition 8, she’s still a dramatist at heart, which ensures that every character in this Sundance hit, regardless of sexual orientation, proves to be believably, entertainingly flawed. Indeed, the politely alcoholic Nic (Annette Bening) and the maddeningly flaky Jules (Julianne Moore) are struggling with a lack of passion in their relationship from the movie’s opening scenes, though they do their best to hide it from their two teenagers, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and—egad—Laser (Josh Hutcherson). When Joni and—egad—Laser track down the scruffily bohemian sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) who ponied up half their DNA, and he suddenly becomes a constant, implicitly subversive presence in this unusual yet ordinary family’s lives, those cracks widen into combative fissures, in ways both lightly funny and mildly harrowing.
Those who saw High Art, in which the ostensibly straight Radha Mitchell falls for Ally Sheedy, and Laurel Canyon, in which the ostensibly straight Kate Beckinsale makes out with Frances McDormand, will thrill to the Shyamalan-level twist Cholodenko employs this time, in which the ostensibly gay Jules suddenly develops the hots for her kids’ hunky dad. (If there’s a propaganda message in Cholodenko’s work, it’s that human sexuality is endlessly fluid.) But the film’s forced plot mechanics are ultimately overshadowed by its credibly messy portrait of the hard work and frustrating compromises involved in any concept of family. Bening and Moore play off each other like the assured pros they are, creating a tangible sense of shared history, while Ruffalo, who’s frequently been miscast since breaking through 10 years ago in You Can Count on Me, turns in one of his least affected and most appealing performances. Even the little-known Hutcherson manages to sell the idea of a young man named—egad—Laser. Human beings have been in short supply at this movies this summer. The drought ends here.