Sometimes, when critics unite to praise a small movie in the middle of summer, it’s because they feel they’ve found an antidote to every dumb, crass, noisy, overscaled mess that Hollywood insists we want for four months a year. But sometimes, the praise comes from the sheer elation of seeing something that they never get to see. After I watched The Kids Are All Right, the new comedy-drama about a middle-aged couple whose domestic stability is rocked when their teenage children meet the anonymous sperm donor who fathered them, I felt delight at its wit, poignancy, and intelligence, sorrow at having to part from its characters, and, most of all, surprise: I couldn’t remember the last time I saw such a good film about being married — a condition that upward of 110 million Americans experience firsthand every day, but almost never at the movies.
As I tried to recall films about marriage, I was startled to realize that the best ones that occurred to me — The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday, Kramer vs. Kramer, Shoot the Moon — were all (a) about divorce and (b) at least 30 years old. I could conjure plenty of movies where the closing credits roll at the altar — but those all present marriage as the end of the story, insisting that the words ”I do” signify the moment at which your life’s journey ceases to be of interest. Where are the movies about the ups and downs, the struggle and pleasure and work and joy, of attaching your fate to somebody else’s for the duration? It’s a subject TV handles well, maybe because the qualities it takes to stick with a TV series — passion, loyalty, an appreciation for routine, and a willingness to tolerate disappointing episodes — are pretty much the qualities it takes to be married. But other than the first 15 minutes of Up, most major recent films have assumed that marriage is so undramatic that there’s no point in grappling with it.
The Kids Are All Right does more than grapple; the film celebrates the journey through marriage in a way that, for the movies, is quietly revolutionary. The breakthrough here isn’t simply that the couple in question, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), is gay. Make what you will of the bitter irony that the first really great, believable married couple on screen in ages cannot legally marry, but co-screenwriter/director Lisa Cholodenko is more interested in showing us that while the dynamic between two women may be different — sexually, interpersonally, emotionally — the mundanities of middle-aged life, parenting struggles, and small domestic tensions are a universal language. The movie hinges on a major plot development — the not-entirely-welcome arrival of the charming but problematic donor (Mark Ruffalo) — but what really interests Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg is the small stuff: the way couples take turns and interrupt each other when telling the story of their relationship to strangers; the way they unconsciously shape their own lives into a narrative; the way their little frictions — the age gap between Jules and Nic, say — lie dormant only to flare unexpectedly; the way they tacitly agree not to say certain things, but then say them at exactly the worst moments. Sometimes Nic, a doctor, drinks a little too much; Jules has never really found herself professionally; time alone is a rarity; sex is a friendly negotiation. This is marriage as you’ve rarely seen it, except perhaps in the bathroom mirror.
At a moment when the producers of the Today show have to be publicly shamed into inviting gay couples to join their ”Modern Day Wedding Contest” after excluding them, the honestly observed depiction of this long-term pair is especially welcome. Moore and Bening play their roles with the kind of exquisite precision that would guarantee them both awards if they didn’t make it look so easy. But Cholodenko doesn’t sanctify Nic and Jules as pioneers of social progress. She knows that they represent a certain stratum of the upper middle class that’s progressive but also complacent. (They can have earnest conversations about organic-versus-locally-grown but still trip over their own glib prejudices about race and class.) They’re not intended to be role models or billboards for gay coupledom. They and their marriage are, however, recognizably human, which this summer counts as one giant leap in the right direction.