There is perhaps no better way of chronicling the way in which society defines the word “family” than to peruse the contents of our popular culture and examine the way in which the media portrays families. You can go back to Leave It to Beaver and the idyllic nuclear family of the 1950’s and before. A husband that worked. A wife that stayed at home. Two loving kids. It was darn near scandalous when Lucille Ball was married to a Cuban on I Love Lucy but America grew to love them. Jump forward to All in the Family where the media first starts to really take a darker and more satirical look at the concept of that nuclear family. Then you have Married with Children that portrayed married life with practically no sentimentality but as strict lampooning. Suddenly, it’s the 2000’s and you have Modern Family which on the confines of that show has nearly every family type imaginable portrayed, from gay, to straight, to a may-november romance. So, the 2010 indie comedy The Kids Are All Right gets to place itself in the pantheon of popular culture that acts as a way to chronicle the continued evolution of the word “family”.

The Kids Are All Right is the story of a married lesbian couple who have two children by way of a sperm donor. Nic (Annette Bening) is a doctor. She is very up tight, not a lot of fun, and she has a bit of a drinking problem. Jules (Julianna Moore) is the more care-free and fun-loving member of the group and the “cool” mom. The kids are Laser and Joni (the waifish but beautiful Mia Wasikowski). Joni has just turned 18 and is about to go off to college. Her brother Laser asks her to try and find out who their biological father is, since she is 18 and able to. He turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a now middle-aged man who owns his own restaurant and an organic food co-op. He’s very laid back and without a lot of direction in life. The story becomes complicated when everyone in the family starts to bond with Paul except for Nic, and this already unconventional family gets even a little bit stranger.

Poor Annette Bening! She’s an incredibly under-rated and unrecognized actress, and every time she gives a career performance (like she does in this film), she is always beaten out by a younger actress giving a history defining female performance. Annette Bening has been the front runner for the Best Actress Oscar three times, and ended up losing each time by a late released film with an iconic female role. Twice she lost to Hillary Swank for Boys Don’t Cry and for Million Dollar Baby. And now she lost to Natalie Portman for Black Swan. While Natalie was definitely better, I’m starting to feel bad about this trend in Bening’s career. Any other year, this performance would have been a winner. Julianne Moore was also fantastic, and both leading ladies deserved their Oscar nominations, as did Mark Ruffalo for his supporting role. I only wish that Mia Wasikowski had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress as well. She’s going to be a talent to contend with some day.

This film is a comedy in the same vein as The Savages or Sideways, which is to say darker and dry. It has its funny moments, but I felt the film also contained a considerable amount of dramatic weight. The movie wasn’t perfect but I thought it was pretty great, especially in how it refused to give easy answers and easy endings. It challenged the viewer with the material and fleshed out all of the characters incredibly well. It can join The Squid and the Whale, The Savages, and The Royal Tenenbaums in the pantheon of great 2000’s dysfunctional family films (even if it isn’t necessarily as good as the films I just mentioned. If you like dry and dark comedies and aren’t a homophobe, you should give this one a rental. It worked for me on a pretty emotional level, and I’m not ashamed to admit that it had me crying at several parts. It’s a good movie.

Final Score: A-

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