The Kids Are All Right (15)

Annette Bening's return to the screen warrants a public holiday.

The Kids Are All Right (15)
dir: Lisa Cholodenko

The films of the writer-director Lisa Choloden­ko are enough to give families a good name. Regardless of whether those clans are improvised (the junkies of High Art), wayward (the rock star in Laurel Canyon who invites her future daughter-in-law to join a threesome) or unconventional, as in The Kids Are All Right, Cholodenko has affection to spare. The parents in the latest film are two Californian women, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), who have each borne a child fathered by the same anonymous donor.

Despite appearances, The Kids Are All Right isn't really a story of lesbian motherhood. Any questions about that parental dynamic are resolved long before the action of the film begins. The easygoing family we see on screen has mostly common-or-garden concerns. The couple don't debate stamen symbolism in Georgia O'Keeffe or whether Ellen DeGeneres's talk show is so bad it's good or merely so bad.

Nic, a doctor who brings her clinical briskness home with her, seems rattled by Jules, who's wishy-washy and hippie-dippy. Jules can't just start a landscape gardening business - she has to be "creating unique, eco-friendly spaces". Nic is unimpressed. "Do you know we're composting now?" she splutters incredulously to friends, as though the practice were a step along from serial killing. She also worries that their brute-pretty 15-year-old son, Laser (Josh Hutch­erson), is unlikely to "grow" in the company of his delinquent friend, whom she describes as "untended". We suspect she's got a point; in an extension of the gardening metaphor, the friend is pointedly named Clay.

Meanwhile, the women's older child, the Rapunzel-haired Joni (Mia Wasikowska), won­ders why her mothers get their kicks from watching all-male pornography. "Well, sweetie," Jules says softly, "human desire is complicated." In a way, Jules is laying the ground for the film we are watching. She's bedding us in.

At 18, Joni is old enough to seek out the identity of the man who fathered her and Laser. The mystery man who made the vital deposit turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo), owner of an organic restaurant. So groovy is Paul that he also grows and harvests the produce he dishes up. Great 1970s Bowie songs boom out when he is having sex or roaring around on his motorcycle.

Joni adores him immediately. Nic and Jules, when they find out about Paul, do a poor job of hiding how crestfallen they are that their children went looking for him. Paul is slowly accepted into the family and gives Jules her first gardening commission, much to Nic's chagrin. "Haven't you heard the expression 'Don't shit where you eat'?" she snaps at Jules. The scene is surely set for Nic, the educated prig, to learn from this nature boy with a penchant for growing things, children included. That's how movies work, right?

Not this one. If it's true that there are life lessons here, it's also the case that they aren't the ones you might expect. The Kids Are All Right still gets some things wrong. Beneath its roll-with-it rhythm, it has a weirdly fogeyish and dogmatic sensibility. Put it this way: any prospective sperm donors should hold fire until after they see what becomes of Paul. The rather paranoid message you take away from the movie is that if you're not wholly of the family or with the family, then you're out on your ear. This homestead is guarded as jealously from perceived interlopers as it is in Fatal Attraction.

The search for a biological parent has formed the basis for comedy (Made in America, Flirting With Disaster) and melodrama (Secrets and Lies). The Kids Are All Right is at its freshest when it falls somewhere in between. I also like the idea of such a hip-seeming film promoting family values. And there isn't a performance that's less than vividly lived-in; the return of Annette Bening in particular warrants some kind of public holiday. It's only a pity that the storyline veers so sharply towards the judgemental. As Jules and Paul would know, it's a bit like planting your azaleas among the weeds. The good stuff gets strangled by the bad.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.