Families are messy. They are complicated, because whenever you get more than one person in a house for more than a few minutes and have to share stuff with them, things get compromise-y. It doesn’t matter if you are related, or how you came to be a family in the first place. Rarely is anyone in the same place in development or mindset, needs or desires. We all gain valuable skills by learning how to walk the family line with grace, trying not let the circus tightrope slip, fold, and circle into the hangman’s noose. And grace – made up of strength, compassion, and wisdom – is perhaps the best thing any of us can hope to acquire, and pass on to our own.  One messy, unconventional family story is told in Lisa Cholodenko’s film “The Kids Are All Right,” with a fine cast in Annette Bening (Nic), Julianne Moore (Jules), Mark Ruffalo (Paul) as the three parents to kids Mia Wasikowska (Joni) and Josh Hutcherson (Laser).

Three parents? Yup, because in this story we have two same-sex partners of long duration – Nic and Jules – and their DNA-donor, Paul, who is introduced into the family as their oldest child, Joni, turns 18 and makes an inquiry call to the sperm bank from whence Paul spanked. Got that? The kids arrange to meet their mutual bio-dad without telling their “momses,” and all goes pretty darn well. Paul is a motorcycle-riding, organic-farming, handsome and successful L.A. restauranteur, laid-back, cool, charming, open to seeing the children he helped put on the planet. Pretty Joni, Nic’s child, is a good girl: smart, high-achieving, thoughtful, and intense like her physician mother; Laser, Jules’ child, is athletic, a follower, not into school, and a little lost, like his mother, but also a nice kid. On the surface, all is well and should be well: five decent and loving people getting to know each other, knowing all the right things to say and do and feel.

But elements are introduced quietly that point out that there is some mess, of course. Nic is quick to anger, likes her wine a little too much, and is a control freak. Jules is resentful of her at times, fumbling her way to purpose, a little spacy. Joni is a bit tightly-wound, shy with boys, trying to assert herself as a new adult, while Laser (yes, Laser) finds himself getting pulled into some bad stuff by a creepy best friend. Paul seems to be the most satisfied with his life, until his interactions with the family bring some new and unexpected feelings to the surface. Connections lead to other connections, causing a crisis for all.

“The Kids Are All Right” is not at all a dark film, and is often quite funny and sweet. Although the lesbian aspect of the movie is frankly front-and-center, in another way it is not at all important to the story, which I like. I like the idea of a world where it doesn’t matter if you have “momses” or “dadses” or traditional married hetero parents, or a grandma and her Chihuahua raising the kids (or raising no kids). Essentially, families all have to deal with the same human issues, bills need to be paid, and someone leaves hair in the drain. Most of the film is played this way and it is refreshing in its confidence in that, with people that you feel could be your own friends or neighbors. The dialogue is realistic, the characters well-rounded and believable, something that I find missing in most movies.

I was really enjoying the film until about the last quarter, where I felt another common problem to movies arise and bubble over to my viewing consciousness: The Rushed and Kind-Of Unsatisfying Ending. It’s terribly hard when you have only so many minutes to tell your story to construct it so that the elements you introduced are dealt with and not just left to hang, and that you don’t dump out into predictable character responses because you just ran out of time. Bening teetered  into overacting, which is a real problem in a small story, and too many precious film minutes were spent with extraneous characters and issues that didn’t really advance the tale in the end. I understand the value of under-explaining and under-playing and leaving the audience to think for themselves; I employ this very often in my own writing . But when you have created such interesting people in your movie it’s frustrating to see them go a little flat at the end. “The Kids Are All Right” just left me a touch disappointed and wishing for a tweak here or there to make what is a really good film into an excellent one.

Yet for my criticisms, I found grace in the movie and in the characters, in the tiny ways that often reflect the quality.  Its best attribute is its portrayal of family issues common to so many households no matter the members, a good thing to underline, and that while we often share our lives with others, we are all solo on that goofy tightrope, walking towards or away.