Another movie exploring family dysfunction might sound like a slog through well-trodden indie film terrain, yet writer-director Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right is written with such perception, directed with such sensitivity and acted with such brio that the result is not only a path paved with good intentions but also one lined with loving detail.
Besides, while many films of this ilk focus more on the "dysfunction" — often with a trace of bemusement if not outright condescension — this one centers more on the "family," specifically, how a true family is determined not by society-approved labels but by the hard work that molds all those involved, and how simply wanting to belong to a family doesn't mean that carte blanche will (or should) automatically be given.
Annette Bening and Julianne Moore star as the fastidious Nic and the openhearted Jules, a married lesbian couple with two upstanding children, 18-year-old Joni (Alice in Wonderland's Mia Wasikowska) and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson). The kids decide that they'd like to meet their biological father, the man who donated the sperm that led to both their conceptions. He turns out to be the laid-back Paul (Mark Ruffalo), whose scruffy demeanor and easygoing attitude eventually earn the affection of the kids and Jules but sets Nic on edge. Unsure of how to allow this man into their collective lives, the adults try to determine what's best for all involved, not once imagining the unexpected consequences that loom on the horizon.
Even more than in her previous efforts High Art and Laurel Canyon, Cholodenko demonstrates a real grasp on the manner in which people express themselves through both words and actions. Such a command of dialogue and circumstance leads to a number of choice moments throughout the picture, whether meaningful (Jules delivers a terrific speech about the difficulties in keeping a marriage together) or merely a throwaway (Laser's idiotic buddy has an odd way of bothering animals, to say the least). That this screenplay has been translated into imagery with the help of five terrific performances (although Moore emerges first among equals) makes the whole enterprise as inviting as a Thanksgiving dinner.