Lisa Cholodenko has a strong voice as a filmmaker, and I've been waiting for her to make the movie that would break her through to the mainstream success she deserves.  "High Art" was a strong, sad little film that featured a career best performance from Ally Sheedy, and "Laurel Canyon" captured a certain type of malaise that sets in here in Los Angeles in a very knowing way.  Still, both of those films were easily marginalized for one reason or another, and her last film, "Cavedweller," seems to have dropped onto DVD with little attention after a small festival run.

Thankfully, instead of following a career path I've seen play out so many times in the past, where early promise adds up to frustration and obscurity, Cholodenko showed up at Sundance this year with a new film, maybe the most personal she's ever made, and the real miracle of it is how she's finally made something this accessible by reaching into her own life.  "The Kids Are All Right" is an incredibly clear-eyed look at who we are right now, and how the definition of "family" is changing, featuring a great cast, a wise and witty screenplay, and pitch-perfect direction.  If there is any justice in the movie universe, this will not only make some real money for Focus Features, but it will also establish Cholodenko as a filmmaker who studios want to support.

One of the reasons I remain confused by the idea that allowing gay people the legal right to marry will somehow erode the "sanctity of marriage" is because every single relationship is different, and whatever happens between two people isn't going to have any direct effect on what happens between two other people.  It's always been my belief that marriage means different things to different people, and until you've done it and lived through it and made mistakes and had successes and experienced pain and joy and loss and happiness all within the confines of whatever "marriage" is to you, there's no way for you to define it.  And the idea that it only means one thing, or that it can only describe one situation... take straight or gay out of it, and that's still completely insane.

In this particular case, Cholodenko and her co-writer Stuart Blumberg have chosen to tell the story of Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Anette Bening), a couple who decided to have kids using artificial insemination, each of them carrying one of their children to term.  Now, as the kids are reaching legal age, they have questions and decide to track down the sperm donor, determined to learn something about themselves.  Their daughter, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), is the one who is able to get the legal paperwork handed over, allowing her and her brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) to track down Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who blows into their life and upends things.

For Paul, it's a chance to look at a life that might have been, something he never realized he wanted until it's served up to him on a plate.  And for Joni and Laser, suddenly having this ridiculously cool male role model in their lives is liberating, exciting, and it scratches some itch they weren't aware of.  It's only Jules and Nic who seem anxious about the situation, suddenly worried that they somehow aren't "enough" for their children.  And the dynamic that Paul introduces into their family doesn't just affect the kids... it also stirs all sorts of unexplored feelings for Jules, which threatens Nic in ways she never imagined.

I'm going to guess right now that Annette Bening is going to be Oscar nominated for this one, and it's not because I'm some genius prognosticator or anything... it's just because it's been so long since we've really seen her onscreen that she almost feels like she's being introduced here, and it's a perfectly modulated performance.  She's got the hardest role in the film in many ways.  Everyone else gets to play light and fun and make terrible decisions at times, and Nic is the one that has to hold the family together.  She's got to be the grown-up.  She's the breadwinner for the family, allowing Jules to flit from job to job, start-up business to start-up business, and when Paul really starts to strain the fabric of her family, it's up to Nic to step up and put things right, no matter how unpopular her decisions are.  There's one scene in particular late in the film where Bening is sitting at a table, and there's a conversation going on around her and she's busy adding up little indicators and clues and suddenly has this realization, and all of this is played out just in the way Bening reacts to the people around her, through subtle facial cues and body language, and she manages to tell this entire story within a shot.  It's a reminder of just how nimble and powerful a performer she really is.  It's the kind of moment that not only glues a film together, but it also ends up on end-of-the-year highlight reels.

Moore is great as well, and much of her material is played opposite Ruffalo, who has rarely been better used on film.  I've been a fan of Ruffalo's since seeing him onstage in 1995, and at that point, the crew of the one-act festival we were both part of used to call him "Baby Brando."  Seeing how he's been used on film in the years since, I was starting to worry that no one would ever tap that crazy charisma of his in the right way, or at least not on film.  Cholodenko got it dead right, though, and she's given him his best film role so far, even better than the work he's done with Kenneth Lonergan.  He plays all the surface fun of the role with just the right touch, but he also shades that work with real regret and sorrow that really gives the film some heft.

Considering the title of the film, you might think the focus of the movie would be on Joni and Laser, but it's not.  They drive the story, but it is the way their family tries to shake itself into shape around them that is the real substance of the film.  I've said before that Mia Wasikowska is one of the most impressive young actors working, and even though there are loose ends in her storyline in the script, Wasikowska gives such a fully-realized performance that she makes you feel like those ellipses in storytelling are intentional, giving her room to fill them in with her deeply nuanced work.  Josh Hutcherson, who seems to getting better with each role he's given, does solid work as the younger brother whose need to find some male connection drives the entire situation in the first place, and he and Wasikowska do a nice job of showing how these kids, raised in what might seem like an unconventional family setting, are really no different than kids raised in any other home.  They are damaged in ways, but in the same ways that any kid trying to establish an identity might be these days.  They are distinguished by their normalcy, and there's never a moment in the film where it feels like they're "acting."  Like the adults in the film, they deliver effortless, natural work, and they both deserve to move on to bigger things after this.

Igor Jadue-Lillo gives the movie a gorgeous palette, but more than that, his cinematography emphasizes the wear and tear on the faces of the principal actors in a way that makes them both more human and more beautiful, and much of the movie is shot close enough that it feels like we're inside these people.  That intimacy is what Cholodenko has brought to her work from the beginning, and seeing it used in service of a story as universal and as open-hearted as this is impressive.  As we find ourselves wrestling with social definitions and changing ideals in this country, we need filmmakers like this who are able to distill big ideas into something personal and immediate and identifiable.  You may not recognize the specifics of your own family in "The Kids Are All Right," but you will no doubt recognize and react to the equally heartbreaking and hilarious humanity on display.

Here's hoping people give this one a chance, especially people who complain that everything in the theaters this summer is hollow, corporate crap.  As long as we keep making and supporting films like "The Kids Are All Right," I think we're all better for it.

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