There’s a well-travelled archetype of the American ‘family drama’: we begin with a generic family living in relative harmony, then the story gets kick-started when a threat appears from outside. The family will be tried; it will rise to meet the threat, eventually banishing it. Restitution is achieved, harmony restored. In less typical versions, the threat might come from within. A battle will still be fought but not everyone will necessarily survive. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is a truly great film for many reasons, not least of which is that Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) carries to the Overlook Hotel the seed of the exhilarating destructive energies that will be explored in the film, in the form of his disastrously erroneous belief that a new environment will allow him the peace of mind to be both father and writer.
In Lisa Cholodenko’s breezy, quick-witted The Kids Are All Right, the ‘threat’ is quite benign, in the form of Mark Ruffalo; he plays an affable, though feckless, long-ago sperm donor to a lesbian couple whose teenage children are getting curious about their biological origins. Ruffalo is one of the better actors of his generation, and you couldn’t think of a nicer person to shake a nuclear family up a little. Ruffalo’s Paul is a laid-back restaurant owner who grows much of his own produce – “I’m keepin’ it kinda local and organic.” His languid sexual energy does not go under-utilised: there’s the hot girl from the restaurant whom he’s sleeping with, and an overly friendly hippie chick from the co-op garden appears to be lining up to be next. Ruffalo manages to make all this seem both charming and inevitable.
Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are preparing for change: daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) is 18 and about to go away to college. Her passage to adulthood gives her parents pause to contemplate the passing of time in their own lives. Their son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is your average, confused teenager. The family is loving and nurturing, even if the strains of familiarity and complacency have crept into the adults’ relationship. Nic, a little tightly wound, is the breadwinner; Jules – perhaps a little too unwound – is making one of her occasional forays into the world of earning a living, this time trying to set up a landscape gardening business.
Paul has all but forgotten his sperm-donating days; back then, it had simply “seemed like a lot more fun than donating blood”. But he’s happy to meet Joni and Laser, and, later, Nic and Jules too. There’s a beautifully awkward first meeting between him and the children. Cholodenko, who made the under-baked High Art (1998) and the underrated Laurel Canyon (2002), elicits here, as she did in those films, finely nuanced performances from all her actors – even her cut- away and reaction shots are rich with emotional resonance.
Joni and Laser are intrigued by Paul, though at first Laser thinks he’s “a little into himself”. To Joni, he’s some exotic specimen of cool; later, however, she will have reason to tell him: “You’re a shitty person.” Meanwhile, Nic and Jules are flummoxed by Paul’s arrival in their lives. Moore captures beautifully the restlessness that afflicts some people in the second decade of a long-term relationship, and the anxiety that can come from not having a purpose in life other than the rearing of children. The gifted Bening has perhaps the most thankless task here, in that her brand of uptight – as scripted – is a borderline cliché, but she pulls it off with amiable sharpness. “If I hear one more person say they love heirloom tomatoes,” she says to friends in a restaurant, “I’m going to fucking kill myself.” Even though Paul – the real object of her barb – is not in the scene, it is easy, by this stage, to sympathise with her sentiment.
None of this is surprising, and we know the film will eventually find its emotional release – threat contained, in other words. The Kids Are All Right does not break any paradigms in its portrayal of family as the moral centre of the universe. But Cholodenko makes what could be a banal domestic relationship drama feel loose and effortless, and you can’t help admiring the care and artifice that must go into making such a construction both invisible and satisfying.
The trailers make The Kids Are All Right look like an out-and-out comedy, but it is darker and more interesting than that. Cholodenko (with co-writer Stuart Blumberg) manages to keep not only the five main characters well-rounded and authentic, but the world they inhabit as well. In more genre-specific films – horror, thriller, comedy – film-makers have greater licence to ‘fudge’ authenticity. Audiences pay to see new formulations of familiar conventions: new car chases, bigger explosions, new bogeymen around dark corners. Amid such heightened visual ritualisation, small false notes tend to pass unnoticed. But in a broad, yet domestic, drama such as The Kids Are All Right, these false notes get amplified, because the characters are moving in a world that’s more familiar to us and thus far easier to scrutinise. Cholodenko ably survives the scrutiny.
In Julie Bertucelli’s French–Australian co-production The Tree, the ‘threat’ that appears from without comes early in the film, and is not so much a material threat as an act of fate, a deus ex machina propelling this small family study into motion. French actor Charlotte Gainsbourg – whose father was the impossibly cool ’60s icon Serge Gainsbourg and mother the beautiful Jane Birkin – is Dawn O’Neil, a French-Anglo woman in her thirties who has been living in Australia since she was about 17.
Dawn lives on a rambling property in south-east Queensland with husband Peter (Aden Young) and a brood of four children – 16-year-old Tim (Christian Byers), 11-year-old Lou (Tom Russell), eight-year-old Simone (Morgana Davies) and four-year-old Charlie (Gabriel Gotting). Peter, who dies of a heart attack soon after the opening credits, appears to have been, on the scant available evidence, a no-nonsense man of the land and a sensitive new-age dad rolled into one. Dawn and the children are left to mourn and carry on as best they can, and the film – an elemental fairytale of sorts – sets out to investigate the family’s collective grief as spare, outback poetry.
There’s a quiet matter-of-factness to the set-up. The country folk here don’t over-intellectualise the aftermath of death – even the children move forward without navel-gazing. “No one’s crying,” observes Simone of the adults at her father’s wake. “That’s how it is, when people are really sad,” her friend replies. Bertucelli allows the drama to breathe. According to production notes, there was initially talk of shooting The Tree in France or Italy but the French director’s outsider eye serves the film well, and the excesses of the Australian landscape and weather seem appropriate to the tale. It’s as if Henry Lawson’s short story ‘The Drover’s Wife’ and John Shaw Neilson’s poem ‘The Orange Tree’ channelled their way into a 21st-century art-house movie, with a touch of Picnic At Hanging Rock mysticism thrown in for good measure.
The sense of mysticism centres around the giant Moreton Bay fig that overlooks and overarches the O’Neil family home. Simone, climbing the tree every day, thinks her dad has started speaking to her there; she certainly speaks to him. It’s idle, funny chit-chat, and animistic too. “My dad took spirit in a tree,” she explains to a friend at one point, “and I go up there every day. To listen to him speak. It’s the best feeling I’ve had.” Dawn has been so absorbed in her own grief that early on she’s not really there for her children. Her daughter’s cheery necromancy worries her but, in fact, it’s this attitude to the arboreal dead that begins drawing Dawn back to the land of the living.
The film plays a straight bat through all this; we don’t really believe there’s anything supernatural afoot, though Dawn, in her disconnectedness, certainly seems quite otherworldly. Gainsbourg can be an incendiary actor in the right role but at times I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was somewhat uncomfortable in this one, and that I was watching an urban mother, all Parisian angularity and brittleness, who couldn’t possibly be related to these robust country kids hurtling around their sturdy old Queenslander. It didn’t entirely feel as if this character had been living in outback Queensland for 20 years.
Morgana Davies as Simone is a revelation. Child actor and newcomer though she is, in a sense The Tree is Davies’ film far more than it is Gainsbourg’s. She displays surprising emotional range for such a youngster, and is comfortable depicting shock, loss or resilient optimism. Up in her little world in the higher branches, in the absence of a functioning mother, she begins to heal her own way into her future, bringing to mind the Shaw Neilson poem:
Listen! the young girl said. For all
Your hapless talk you fail to see
There is a light, a step, a call
This evening on the Orange Tree.
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