The film follows two siblings, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), who want to meet their biological father. He isn’t in the picture because their mothers, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), each gave birth with a sperm donation. Laser convinces Joni to call the sperm bank to set up a meeting, because she is 18 and allowed to request that information while he only 15. Their biological father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), is a restaurateur “really pushing the alternative style.” After his mothers press him to explain his bizarre behavior recently, Laser admits to meeting Paul. Although obviously hurt that their children sought out Paul, they decide the whole family should meet him. As he gets more and more involved in their lives, the normal pattern of their family life gets shaken up.
Nic, a doctor, and Jules, currently a landscaper with a scattered job history, must also deal with themselves aging and changing. Nic is constantly stressed and a bit emotionally blocked recently, while Jules is a free spirit almost offended by Nic at this stage in their life. When they meet Paul, Jules connects with him because they are both free spirits. Nic, unsurprisingly, doesn’t care for him. Her biggest fear is that Joni will develop more of Jules’s traits and drift further away from her. Like all parents, seeing a child off to college is hard enough, but dealing with her becoming even further away terrifies Nic. It’s a really interesting take at the family relationships to see parents have to deal with their expectations of what their kids are going to become. It’s something that’s touched upon in many films, but here that idea is taken head on. While always loving them, there seems to be a particular sting whenever Paul talks about dropping out of school, fearing that it may convince Laser to follow in his path, or whenever Nic realizes that Joni is becoming her own person.
While I found the storyline touching and realistic, the superb acting helped the film immensely. Julianne Moore played her typical role (Don Jon & Crazy, Stupid, Love) as a free spirited, middle-aged woman and was exactly as good as you expect from her. She delivered a particularly moving monologue towards the end, but to avoid spoilers, I’ll just say you have to see it for yourself. Even better, perhaps, was Annette Bening, who earned an Oscar nomination for this role. She was incredibly believable as a tough parent with a demanding career. Her balance of heavy emotion with coldness was astounding. And while everyone was wonderful, lastly I want to mention how charming Mark Ruffalo is while still being able to handle the serious moments of the film well.
A lot of films trying to deal with so many different aspects of life can come off as too cliché or, even worse, appear to collapse under their own weight; thankfully, this is not one of those films. Director Lisa Cholodenko held the whole thing together and kept it away from both of the previously mentioned, disastrous ends that the film could’ve met. It was a fresh and different look at the family dynamic because most films would use a more traditional family or focus on only one aspect of their relationships. I think that being able to have an outsiders view and being somewhat detached from personal experience made it easier to take an objective look at what was being said about family. While I can’t relate to the circumstances of the film, I didn’t find it at all inaccessible or foreign. It was an ambitious idea for a film but sometimes, like Jules says about garden design, “more is more”.
Length: 105 minutes