A Midsummers Family Comedy with a Twist of Lemon

Does the American family need a viable father figure again?

A comedy focusing on a lesbian-headed family, “The Kids Are Alright” asks that question, whether writer-director Lisa Cholodenko knows it or not. And it seems to say so, before it changes its mind and says no. I don’t know, and I’m not sure the film does, either.

Joni (“Alice in Wonderland” star Mia Wasikowska) and Lazer (Josh Hutcherson) are the teenaged children of a lesbian couple. They decide to secretly track down the sperm donor who gave them life. From behind door number three steps the amiable Paul (Mark Ruffalo). He is a motorcycle rider, a cool dude, and a little too talented at bedding women. The athletic brother and brainy sister worry he might be weird, but it turns out he’s a nice, welcoming man.

As the children spend time with their new father, it places stress on the relationship of the lesbian pair. They are already on the border of love and staleness, with low sex-drive, kitchen table bickering and three-drink alcoholism. The domineering physician (Annette Bening) finds him threatening. The more moon-beamy one (Julianne Moore) finds him intriguing. “Intriguing” might be a code word for something else.

Do the kids need a father figure? They certainly seem thirsty for a male presence. Lazer takes quickly to shooting hoops with him, and the teen responds to fatherly guidance with obedience. While the sheltered super-brain Joni has a girl-next-door personality, some of her behavior falls squarely within the stereotype of “the girl who grew up without a father.” One mother wonders, “Are we not enough?” For a while it seems like the answer is no, not entirely. That admission stands slightly at odds with the desire to put forth a positive vision of a lesbian family unit.

As a remedy, the film gently turns the nice guy into a nice villain. It later apologizes and grants him a touch of unlikely redemption. One might look at this as generosity on Cholodenko’s part. I’m sure that’s how it is intended. But ist feels more like she really doesn’t know where to go. Ultimately, that’s a fair description of “The Kids Are Alright” as a whole.

I’ll take a stab and assume “The Kids Are Alright” will be hailed as a groundbreaking and politely controversial film, a warm comedy placing before the American public a different kind of American family. That’s fair, but it is still undeniably a sitcom. Clever sitcom. Funny sitcom. But sitcom nonetheless. And while you enjoy spending time with these people, their personalities are burned down to their tics and their lives are burned down to the plot. It will make you wonder, “Where are The Who?” Then you will scratch your head and leave the theater.

Limited release on July 9.

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