By Paul Hansen

Films are often interesting because they reflect the cultural currents of their times. Few subjects are as topical or controversial (in some quarters) as the subject of same sex couples who have children.The new film The Kids Are All Right delves directly into the subject. The film stars Annette Bening and Julianne Moore who are a lesbian couple that were both artificially inseminated by the sperm of the same donor. The film opens as their two teenage children track down their biological father (played by Mark Ruffalo) and introduce him into the family fold, creating complex and unpredictable situations.

The Kids Are All Right has the feel of a documentary, accentuated by the occasional use of hand held cameras. In its emphasis on realism, there isn’t a single scene in the film that seems improbable or overly drawn (at least to this reviewer). With the addition of the biological father in the family set-up, all of the characters are venturing into emotional terra incognita. The film realistically depicts the tentative, step by step reactions of the characters to their altered emotional and social landscape.

While there is plenty of humor in The Kids Are All Right, little of it seems forced or artificial. Much of the comedy in current Hollywood films functions on a very adolescent level and it would have been so easy for this film to descend into cheap, sit-com laughs. Fortunately, the movie avoids this trap.

There has been much speculation about a possible Best Actress Academy Award nomination for Annette Bening, who plays the “dominant” partner in her relationship with Julianne Moore. Bening’s performance is impressive because it refuses to play to extremes or rely on clichés or stereotypes. It is a portrayal that does not overtly call attention to itself except through its subtlety and attention to detail. However, the very lack of flamboyance in Bening’s performance and the summer release may cause her portrayal to be overlooked by the Motion Picture Academy, particularly since its nominating process will not occur for some time.

Julianne Moore always has an interesting screen presence. She admirably plays Bening’s somewhat more unfocused partner and there has also been Oscar talk about her performance. Both Moore and Bening demonstrate at discrete moments in the film that emotional pain can take on a virtual physical quality. Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson (as the children) demonstrate a sense of proportion in their roles similar to the two female leads. An almost improvisatory atmosphere permeates most of the actors’ performances, heightening the film’s realistic ambiance.

Credit is also due to director and writer Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg (additional writer) for their artful restraint. Social films of this type often push a particular agenda. Crude proselytization is avoided. The creators of the film seem comfortable with ambiguity and the relationship between Bening and Moore ultimately takes a surprising, ambivalent turn.

The Kids Are All Right demonstrates that Cupid’s arrows fly in many different directions, causing desire, pain and confusion on a multitude of levels. Regardless of a viewer’s position on same sex relationships, the film at least flatters the human heart by depicting it intelligently and sensitively.