We are family

The Kids Are All Right's (non)traditional comedy

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Annette Bening stars as Nic, a typical mom -- who, oh yeah, also happens to be gay!
PHOTO BY SUZANNE TENNER

arts@sfbg.com

>>Read Louis Peitzman's complete interview with director Lisa Chodolenko here

FILM In many ways, The Kids Are All Right is a straightforward family dramedy: it's about parents trying to do what's best for their children and struggling to keep their relationship together. But it's also a film in which Jules (Julianne Moore) goes down on Nic (Annette Bening) while they're watching gay porn.

"I think we tried and I think we were somewhat successful in making it so that you don't realize exactly what you're watching, the subversiveness of what you're seeing," says writer-director Lisa Cholodenko (1998's High Art). "I think we figured out a way for people to enter it, and that was really important for us."

That blend between mainstream and queer is part of what makes The Kids Are All Right such an important — not to mention enjoyable — film. Despite presenting issues that might be contentious to large portions of the country, the movie maintains an approachability that's often lacking in queer cinema.

"I thought it was a very classic story," Bening says, "other than that the women are gay."

Cholodenko and Bening were both on hand in San Francisco to promote and speak about the film. Of course, being in the gay mecca of the Bay Area skews things significantly — most locals wouldn't bat an eye at The Kids Are All Right, which has Nic and Jules' children inviting their biological father ("the sperm donor") into their lives. But for those outside the liberal bubble, the idea of a nontraditional family might be more problematic. Combine that with the film's semiexplicit sexual content and a darkly comic, matter-of-fact script, and you've got a tougher sell.

"There were questions about the gay porn and about how much sexuality we were showing, but we felt like this is the fun of the film," Cholodenko reflects. "It's not going to be a multiplex film. But we hope it's not going to be super-rarefied art house film."

The fun Cholodenko mentions is the real strength of The Kids Are All Right, a movie that refuses to take itself too seriously. At its best, the film is laugh-out-loud funny, handling the heaviest of issues with grace and humor.

"To me, [the humor] is so important — and it's harder," Bening says. "That's why more movies don't have it. It's because it's harder. It's much easier to write in an earnest way."

That's not to say that the film is insincere. Much of the humor is derived from the fact that it's grounded in reality. The characters respond to their situation as real people do — and that's far funnier than the broad, over-the-top reactions that often plague more mainstream comedies.

"We were really passionate about making it not politically correct and not sanctimonious," Cholodenko explains. "As we went deeper into the drafts and moved along in the evolution of getting the film done, I really, really, really pushed for us to take whatever was potentially funny in there and just kick it up a notch."

Besides — as Bening puts it — "I think if you're trying to make an earnest movie about a lesbian couple with teenagers, whoa, what a nightmare that would be." It's not a message movie, but The Kids Are All Right may still change minds. And even if it doesn't, the film is a success that works chiefly because it isn't heavy-handed.

"It doesn't ever have to go out and carry the banner, which is what great movies and great stories can do," Bening notes. "You take an individual group of people, a specific little pod of people, and you try to tell their own personal stories as specifically as possible. Hopefully you get at something true and universal by doing that."

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