If What Maisie Knew is a study of a toxic dysfunctional family, then The Kids are All Right is its exact opposite. The Kids are All Right features a loving family, very vanilla, so much so that it almost makes you gag. The family live in an affluent and liberal part of Los Angeles, Venice Beach, one parent is a stay-at-home parent and the other is an obstetrician. The two children of this marriage are so well behaved that it’s a dream for most parents with teenagers. They get good grades, they stay out of trouble. They are respectful to their parents. They do as they are told without objection.
The only thing that is unconventional about this family is that the two parents are a lesbian couple, married, each carried a child with the same sperm donor. Their daughter Joni, played wonderfully by Mia Wasikowska at some point during the movie accuses her parents of wanting the “perfect lesbian family”.
At the beginning of the film, Joni has just turned 18 and is about to go off to college. She is a straight-A student, a serious and studious girl who aims to please her parents so that they aren’t criticized for forming a lesbian family. Her brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) who is two years younger, is more laid back. He wants to meet their sperm donor but because he’s not yet 18 so he cannot legally inquire, but his sister can. He implores her to go to the sperm bank and find out who their donor is. Joni reluctantly agrees, they find out he’s a guy called Paul (Mark Ruffalo) and he lives nearby. They agree to meet. Both of them immediately take to him, especially Joni, who appreciates his laid back attitude to life compared with her more uptight ways. The kids wanted to keep this a secret from their mothers but felt in the end it would seem disloyal and sneaky. Since they weren’t doing anything wrong, they decided to tell their moms about the meeting with Paul.
They also told their mothers that they’d like to keep on seeing Paul – the sperm donor, but in order to do that their moms Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) demands that they meet Paul too. The meeting went well and both moms, with some reservations, gave their blessings to allow the relationship between the sperm donor and children to continue.
This is where the cracks in Nic and Jules’s marriage begin to appear. Like all families, there are problems, even the most idyllic looking ones. Nic, the main breadwinner of the family can be controlling and domineering. Since their children were born, Jules has always been the stay-at-home parent, though it wasn’t always her choice. She had aspirations of some type of a career, and she’s started and ended a lot of projects and careers, all funded by Nic. She’s recently started a new landscaping business again, she’s eager to create a career for herself, something to call her own. Nic supports her but in a sort of passive aggressive way. Nic also has a drinking issue, she is very close to becoming a functional alcoholic. Everyone, including the children, notices her drinking but don’t say much about it.
Paul upon hearing about Jules’s new landscaping business decides to hire her to redo the gardens of his home, which has become an overgrown jungle. Nic doesn’t like the idea but she doesn’t want to appear unsupportive, she reluctantly agrees. We soon find out the reason for Nic’s reservations, it appears that Jules is bisexual, or perhaps used to be bisexual before she committed to a lesbian relationship. Jules quickly begins an affair with Paul and it’s a passionate affair. Let’s just say she really missed having a man to have sex with and enjoys herself a little too much in the coitus department, especially for a supposed lesbian. They engage in passionate daily sex sessions while they are supposed to be planning the garden, needless to say, not much work was done.
Paul is your typical man who doesn’t want to commit to any single woman. He’s hedonistic and carefree and does what pleases him, compared to the uptight and controlling Nic, he’s a breath of fresh air. He’s also flattering to Jules–something Nic isn’t, and it makes her feel good and worthy again. Except he was only flattering to her because he wants to sleep with her, something Jules doesn’t realize for obvious reasons. Jules feels terrible about betraying her wife, but doesn’t really do much to stop herself from sleeping with Paul either.
At the same time Paul is sleeping with the children’s mother, he is also spending a lot of time with Joni and Laser. They really like him, and like that old saying blood is thicker than water, the children bonded with him. These children never had a father around, never a man in the house, they never knew what they missed until now and they like him. In turn, he also bonded with his ‘kids’ too, he begun to see those children as his own though he has no right to. He’s careful to not cross boundaries or discipline inappropriately, but he makes an effort to be a ‘good friend’ to them. In fact, it’s about the only people he’s ever allowed himself to commit to, since he won’t commit to one woman.
Throughout this whole time, Nic feels that something is amiss. She feels that her children are drifting away from her and her relationship with Jules is on shaky ground. To clear the air and ease tensions, they all agree to go to Paul’s house to have dinner. When Nic goes to use the restroom she finds clumps of Jules’s flaming red hair in Paul’s shower drain (just like how she leaves it at their house – that’s a bone of contention between them). Feeling worried, she tiptoes to Paul’s bedroom and takes a look around and sure enough Jules’s red hair is found on Paul’s pillow and bedsheets and she learns the truth. Her wife is having an affair with a man and not just any man, the man who also happens to be their children’s sperm donor. And on top of that, he’s carefree, sexy and good looking with a penis – the opposite of her. This can threaten her family.
Later that evening, they have a confrontation and Jules ends up on the couch and the children know what’s happened. The children are sad and disappointed that the man they have begun to like and trust has done this to their mothers’ marriage. They wish he is a better person.
In recent years, the concept of a family has changed to be more inclusive. The idea of mom, dad, two kids and a dog constitutes an ideal family is no longer. Joni and Laser while grew up in a loving and affluent household, with supportive parents, but without a father or male figure, and when they did find their sperm donor, they are instinctively drawn to him like moths to flame. There’s no explanation, logical or otherwise. They just ‘liked’ him when they met him, even the usually stoic and methodical Joni. Is it genetic, or just pure curiosity on what it’s like to have a dad after not being raised with one, it’s hard to know.
The director of the film Lisa Cholodenko, is a lesbian in a committed relationship raising a son together, perhaps she wanted to explore what it’s like for children who didn’t grow up with the concept of having a mother and father and how that affects them. The traditional family is perhaps the oldest institution in the world. It’s prehistoric, before any political or civil institution was formed, the family was the bedrock of society, some would argue it still is but the composition of a family has changed. So when you change one of the major components of the family, how does that affect the children? There will always be a curiosity of the person that gave you half of his or her DNA, there’s no getting away from that. It doesn’t matter if it’s a household with two dads or two moms, the children of those unions will always wonder about the other half of them. To pretend that curiosity doesn’t exist or can be tucked away would be naive.
Lisa Cholodenko explores this subject in a very sensitive manner. As much as Joni and Laser like their sperm donor Paul, but when it came time to choose, due to the bad behavior of Paul, they chose their family, their mothers. Before Joni was to go off to college, Paul came by their house one last time asking if they could still keep in touch and be friends, Joni’s logical side came back to her and she gave a noncommittal answer, but most of all, she was disappointed with him. She wanted Paul, ‘her dad’ essentially, to be better, to act better, to make better decisions. In short, he wasn’t who she thought he was. Her younger brother Laser, who wanted to initiate this meeting to begin with, wouldn’t even speak to Paul. These two children have something that most children don’t have –and that is the freedom and luxury of rejecting a father who disappoints them.
Nic rightly asserted that Paul was an “interloper” and that if he wanted a family he should go build his own and stay away from hers. In the end Nic and Jules reconciled – it was painful and bruising to them both. But at least they got to get to the bottom of the troubles in their relationship and mend it as opposed to glossing over it. In the end, your family are the people you choose and allow in, not so much what society or genetics dictate.