Like family, 'Kids' is funny, difficult, lifelike

“The Kids Are All Right” is a smart, cheerful, character-driven relationship comedy. Imagine: a boldly funny film that doesn’t trade in meet-cutes and laughtrack jokes, but carefully observes five interesting people colliding like bumper cars.

Nic and Jules are a well-off suburban Southern California couple on the cusp of middle age. They have nice children, 18-year-old Joni and her 15-year-old brother, Laser. Their table talk is about doctor Nic’s medical practice, drifty Jules’ latest stab at finding a vocation (this time as a landscape gardener, maybe), Joni’s preparations for college and Laser’s summertime shenanigans. There’s a bit of angst around the edges, but essentially it’s a nice Ozzie and Harriet household.

Incidentally, Nic and Jules are lesbians. Which brings us to Paul, the sperm-donor father of both children. The kids want to bring him into their lives. The “Moms,” as the kids collectively call them, are reluctant, but allow visits. The arrival of this rootless organic farmer/restaurateur disrupts the emotional ecosystem that took years to evolve. Paul, a charming perpetual bachelor wandering through life like a tourist, happily spends time with this prefab clan. “I love lesbians,” he declares, as if they were tasty legumes.

The film is an unabashed love letter to the idea of family, but it doesn’t idealize the institution or the realistically flawed people in it. Dark notes accentuate the film’s ticklish humor.

As Nic, it’s another solid performance by Annette Bening, who, like a fine chardonnay, gets better with age. We get a sense of the anger that sweet, henpecked Jules holds in check from Julianne Moore’s pained smile.

The kids (Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson) and Paul (Mark Ruffalo) bond like Krazy Glue. They blossom as he encourages their independence in ways two mothers can’t. Nic and Jules dispense enough talk of feelings to glaze a child psychologist’s eyes; Paul is a self-proclaimed “doer.”

Nic, who is not exactly manpositive, raises her defensive shields against the outsider. Hippie-dippy Jules, whose sexual center of gravity is as here-andthere as her career plans, must confront her own confusion about the handsome lug now installed at the dinner table. His Peter Pan mentality is closer to her wavelength than Nic’s Type A drive, and he made her family possible.

Ruffalo lets us see the unstable mix of emotions bubbling beneath Paul’s smooth delivery. Before long Jules is helping revive Paul’s shaggy back garden, spending hours in close consultation with her new client. Very close consultation. The film has some of the frankest and funniest love scenes ever to feature name movie stars.

All this is observed with vivid scrutiny of behavior, social manners, sexual mores and psychology.

Director Lisa Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg mold the story with sharp minds and skillful hands. They have created a gallery of living, thinking, feeling originals, observing all with amused affection.