The characters and lives in Lisa Cholodenko’s films always appear fully realized and well-lived in, like a closet filled with slightly wrinkled and worn clothes. Her previous works, including Dinner Party, High Art and Laurel Canyon all gather their estimable power from the depth and density of her character work. You might say the art is all in the details, but her ability to draw out pitch-perfect naturalistic performances from actors as diverse as Ally Sheedy, Christian Bale and, now, Annette Bening, adds a deeper and more affecting dimension to her work.
Here, Bening plays Nic, a doctor married to her longtime partner, Jules (Julianne Moore), and living with the couple’s two teenage kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). She’s a good provider but a control freak, liable to go bitter and sardonic at a moment’s notice. As such, it doesn’t sit right with her when her two children track down and contact their sperm donor “father,” Paul (Marc Ruffalo), a successful, earthy restaurateur who rides a motorcycle and still has flings with his barely twentysomething waitstaff. To his surprise, when he meets the kids, he quickly becomes very taken with them, and the idea of being a father — past all the work and blood/sweat/tears of actually raising them. Adding to Nic’s anxiety, Paul and Jules also seem to have significant chemistry together.
While all the actors do commendable work, it’s Bening who puts herself the furthest out there, playing a woman whose fear and neurosis at first strike the audience as almost entirely unlikable. She’s catty and caustic, afraid to relinquish her tight grip on her family, even as Joni is about to leave the nest and go to college. The thing is, it turns out, Nic’s distrust of Paul turns out to be almost entirely justified. He’s not a bad man, by any means, just a guy who, after years of answering to no one and not having any ties, tries to luck into a ready-made family without suffering the heartache and pain of parenthood. Jules, who is prone to speak to her children like a self-help therapist (“Do you think he’s the kind of person who can help you grow?” she earnestly asks her son about a friend of his she distrusts), is exactly the kind of person who suffers lapses in character and judgment.
Cholodenko is at her absolute best in those moments where families all come together, at the dinner table or car rides, small moments of connection blooming into something sweet or shriveling into something dark and dire. She’s also well versed in the ways in which our long-term relationships, even those with the best of intentions, can turn into cloudy and morbid affairs. The title might suggest the infallibility of youth — notably, Joni and Laser seem far more together than their moms through the course of things — but in this film, it’s the adults who have to learn to live with the choices they have made.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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