The Kids Are Always Right

July 26, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

In American movies and TV, the kids are usually more than all right. They are superior to adults in every way. As I tried to show in an earlier post, they are more intelligent, more sensible, and more competent.

“The Kids Are All Right” offers a variation on this theme. The film uses an old device – a stranger arrives into a group, and his relationship with each of its members makes for tectonic shifts, exposing fault lines in the group structure. In this case, the group is a family – a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) and their two teenage children. The movie plot is set motion when the daughter having just turned 18, uses her new legal status, at her brother’s urging, to find out who their biological father is. So in comes Mark Ruffalo with a special relation to each member of the family. He is sperm donor to both mothers, biological father to both kids.

[For a better plot summary, watch the trailer.]

The movie isn’t “Ferris Bueller” (foolish, vindictive adults continually outwitted by clever teenagers), but here too, for the most part, the kids are right, and the adults are wrong. Brother and sister make the right decisions – each starts the film with an offensive friend, and each deals with the problem decisively. It’s the moms who can’t sort out the difficulties in their relationship. Jules (Moore) has never stuck with a career, and in the course of the movie she gives in to impulsive lust. Nic (Bening) is jealous and controlling and tends to drink a bit too much wine. Even their sex life keeps hitting snags and interruptions. Paul (Ruffalo) is cute and likable, but ultimately not much of a grown-up.

The kids are really a proxy for the audience here. Like the audience in the theater, the kids find out about all the adults’ missteps (they are constantly overhearing the grown-ups, either by accident or by design). And like the audience, even when the kids say nothing, they seem to be standing in moral judgment. The adults sense this too. If you see the movie (and it’s certainly worth seeing) try counting the number of times that the adults apologize to the teenagers.

Still, “The Kids Are All Right” departs from the usual child-adult scenarios of comedy (children outwit adults), romantic comedy (children manipulate adults), or drama (children redeem adults).* Instead, the kids learn that grown-up life is complicated and that relationships and people are not perfect. Or as Julianne Moore declaims to the family at the end, just in case someone missed the point, “Marriage is hard.”

*Only very rarely do we get an American film like “Parenthood,” where kids are just ordinary kids, and our sympathy lies with the parents who must endure and try to cope with their children’s shortcomings.

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