The family at hand is parented by the un-surnamed Nic and Jules, a middle-aged lesbian couple, and their children Joni (from a Nic pregnancy) and Laser (from a Jules pregnancy). It's a family unit that might have seemed shocking had it appeared in a film 15 years ago, but the film plays it fairly straight (so to speak), focusing on each character's individual quirks instead of playing up the idea of a family headed by a lesbian couple as being especially noteworthy. Which is a strength, to be sure; this is one of the more believable screen families of recent years. Director Lisa Cholodenko goes to great lengths to downplay any notion that the arrangement is in any way odd, and as such, the first scene with the family together is almost a parody of the traditional family dinner scene. Everything is extremely pleasant, perhaps a bit too much so: it doesn't seem as though anything wrong will ever happen to these people.
The family dynamic is made clear early on: Nic ( Annette Bening) is the family breadwinner, a Type A doctor who hits the wine perhaps a bit too often. Bening has perhaps the least favorable role to play in the film, as Nic seems to be the least fun member of the entire family; she's a bit too brittle and straight-laced to be very fun to watch, as if we were watching home videos of Hillary Clinton. Unfortunately, this all makes it difficult to sympathize with her during the drama of the latter half of the film. Her counterpart is Jules ( Julianne Moore), a hippie-ish "cool mom" who talks about ideas "rising to the plane of consciousness" and yearns to start a landscape design business. Moore's is perhaps the most difficult character arc to pull off here, but she's always been able to slip into any role, and her performance is especially touching late in the film, when she's in that amazingly painful place where you desire forgiveness but know it won't be coming anytime soon.
In a nice touch, the kids reflect the personalities of their respective mothers: Joni ( Mia Wasikowska) is a bright, Scrabble-obsessed, reserved 18-year-old who's heading off to college, while Laser ( Josh Hutcherson) seems a bit more apprehensive about his future. Hutcherson's performance is good, if occasionally a bit too understated: it's easy to see the confusion he feels about being the man of the house in a house that doesn't particularly need anyone to fill that role.
Mark Ruffalo, playing a rogue-ish, happy, late-30s bachelor who's somewhat stunned to actually realize that sperm donations sometime lead to children (this seems an echo of a similar performance he turned in The Brothers Bloom, although he's more nuanced here). Ruffalo is one of the most naturally charming actors we have working today, and he turns his high beams on here, easily impressing Joni and Laser. No one's quite sure whether he's supposed to be a friend, a father figure, or some combination thereof, leading to blurry boundaries and an uneasy threatened feeling on the part of the moms.
What happens between these characters is perhaps best left unexplored, but suffice to say mistakes are made, feelings are hurt, and things get complicated. While this is a film with a lesbian couple at its center, it's kind of a testament to Cholodenko and the script that that doesn't matter as much as it would have in the hands of someone who wanted to make a "gay film"; some gay cinema seems to focus on a character's sexuality to the exclusion of actually making them interesting, whereas here, Jules and Nic are simply people in a relationship, if one with its own unique complications.
The Kids Are All Right is a wonderfully watchable film, probably the best family dramedy I've seen since The Royal Tenenbaums, even if I felt myself appreciating it more for avoiding any major flaws rather than executing on its ideas exceedingly well. It's also funny, but in that weird way in which movies can be consistently amusing while rarely drawing outright guffaws. This isn't a film that ever upsets your expectations for it, but it doesn't seem to want to; instead, it seems pretty happy to just execute on its ideas while mixing together a puree of the best parts of late-70's cinematic family drama and mid-2000's indie cleverness. Throw in one of the best ensemble performances of the year, and the result is a film that, even though it falls short of greatness, transcends the "quirky" label it could've been tagged with in lesser hands and easily reaches "excellent".