(Focus) Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson, Yaya DaCosta, Kunal Sharma, Eddie Hassell, Zosia Mamet, Rebecca Lawrence, Lisa Eisner, Eric Eisner, James MacDonald. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko
Families come in all shapes and sizes, and these days the definition of what a family is has had to be redefined again and again. The one common denominator for every family, however, is the bonds that exist within it.
Jules (Moore) and Nic (Bening) have been a couple for more than two decades. Nic is an OB/GYN and is the main breadwinner for the family. While Jules went to college to become an architect, she’s really drifted from career to career, not really settling on something that made her happy. At the moment, she’s in the process of starting a new landscape design business but as yet has no clients.
They have two children, each one having given birth to one using the same sperm donor so that the kids are blood-related through the father. Joni (Wasikowska) is Nic’s pride and joy, an overachiever who will be leaving the nest for a prestigious University about an eight hour drive from their suburban Los Angeles home (you figure out which one it is). Laser (Hutcherson) is the progeny of Jules and he’s something of a sensitive jock sort. His best friend is Clay (Hassell) – which does not compute because Clay is an overbearing asshole – but nonetheless the two hang out. Laser observes the horseplay that goes on between Clay and his dad (MacDonald) and wonders what if.
Because Laser is only 15, he can’t legally get information about his sperm donor father, but 18-year-old Joni can and after she determines how important it is to Laser, she does. This doesn’t sit particularly well with the moms – they wish that it had been done with their participation but nevertheless the agency contacts the donor and gives him the option of contacting Joni.
The penis in question belongs to Paul (Ruffalo) who raises laid-back to an art form. He runs an organic restaurant, along with a co-op garden that supplies it. He is unmarried and drifts from relationship to relationship, never pausing at any single one for very long. He’s got a crooked smile and sounds like he went to Woodstock and never left.
He’s surprised and intrigued when he gets the message and after dithering a bit decides to call. He arranges to meet his kids at his restaurant. Curiously, after the meeting which is awkward but sweet, it is Joni who finds herself closer to their dad than Laser, who seems less than enthusiastic at how his DNA contributor turned out.
Nonetheless the meeting goes well enough so that a second one is planned but the moms put their foot down – they want to meet this man as well before they allow their children to spend any more time with him.
Paul manages to charm Jules, although Nic is less enamored. In fact, Nic has been less enamored of everything of late, drinking far too much wine and trying to control every aspect of her family’s lives as she can. Even the sex between Nic and Jules can only come with the viewing of gay male porn – which Laser accidentally finds out about, leading to a nifty scene in which he asks for an explanation and gets one that, while didactic, at least makes some sense.
Paul begins to play an increasing role in the lives of the family, while both moms seem to be deep in the throes of a genuine mid-life crisis. Will the addition of a new component in the dynamic serve to bring them all closer, or will it fracture their bonds irreversibly?
This is a movie with a great deal of charm and heart. The lesbian mother angle seems to be the one getting the most commentary, but honestly this isn’t about promoting a lifestyle. In fact, the dynamics within the relationship of Nic and Jules could belong to any couple, gay or straight. The fact that it is gay sends a message that I find important – that this couple who clearly love each other and just as clearly have problems are just like you and me.
Cholodenko helps her own cause by casting two of Hollywood’s most respected and accomplished actresses. Bening is amazing in her role, making her Nic definitely a bit of a control freak with a stick up her ass (she’s constantly pestering her kids to send thank you notes for every kindness accorded them) while being vulnerable and human. I have a feeling that some Oscar voters are going to give her consideration come awards season.
Moore is no less courageous with her choices. She’s very much a beautiful woman, but she allows her age to show her (as well as her breasts). Flighty where Nic is practical, Jules is surprisingly grounded when push comes to shove and even though her character makes some monumental mistakes, Moore is a good enough actress that you can still identify with her and even root for her even when she’s doing things she shouldn’t be.
The teen actors carry their end of the burden as well. Wasikowska didn’t particularly impress me in Alice in Wonderland earlier this year (I found her to be a bit bland) but she does solid work here playing a goody-two-shoes who occasionally snarls with teen angst. Hutcherson has mostly appeared in fantasy films (Bridge to Terabithia, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant and Journey to the Center of the Earth) but he’s likable enough and gives Laser just enough edge to make him interesting.
While the kids occasionally run on the too-good-to-be-true side, this is a family that is believable, with plenty of warts and plenty of love. They’re not perfect but they’re not awful either. These are real people just trying to get by in a world that isn’t necessarily receptive to them.
REASONS TO GO: Cholodenko shows a deft, light touch and the five leads all give solid, admirable performances, particularly Bening.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie loses steam in the last 20 minutes.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexuality and some nudity. There is also some teen drug and alcohol use; I would rate this suitable for mature teens only.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The children of Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw, playwright David Mamet and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner all appear in various roles in the movie.
HOME OR THEATER: While I’m always about supporting indie films and filmmakers by suggesting you see the movies in the theater, I have to admit that you won’t lose anything in the experience by seeing it at home.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: Crank: High Voltage