The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko, 106 mins (15)

Family life, LA-style, is lovingly scrutinised in this smart, funny story of lesbian parents and their curious kids

The joke in The Kids Are All Right is that, for once, the kids really are all right.

A little uncertain, perhaps, about who they are and where they're going, but that's normal. Here it's the adults who are confused and have some life lessons coming their way. You can see why Lisa Cholodenko's witty Californian comedy has been such a hit in the United States – it's a mature, brittle piece that treats its viewers and characters alike as intelligent, humane adults. The film's humour – rarely these days – derives not from people's fundamental awfulness, although Cholodenko's social tableau certainly includes disappointment and betrayal. The film actually leaves you feeling good, even optimistic about human nature, Cholodenko having the rare gift of making well-balanced people as funny as the usual off-the-peg dysfunctionals.

The kids in question are Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), teenage progeny of a middle-aged lesbian couple, Nic and Jules (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore). With Mia due to leave the family's LA home for university, she decides it's time for her and Laser to meet the man who donated the sperm by which both their mothers conceived. He turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a cheerfully laid-back, quietly macho restaurateur who's delighted to meet the inquisitive young pair, and can't wait to start playing a ready-made paternal role.

"Moms", as they're collectively called (as in "That would hurt Momses' feelings"), aren't entirely happy about the kids' secret meetings with Paul. They were actually hoping that Laser was about to divulge another secret entirely – in a priceless scene, Momses' expectant smiles drop as Laser reveals that, no, he and his best buddy aren't gay. The film plays slyly for a while with the family's different attitudes to Paul, and his awkwardness as he experiments with playing fatherly. Then one Mom finds herself getting closer to Paul than she expected – which has raised strong objections from some female viewers in the US, who feel that a screen lesbian should be a lesbian, and no messing with bi desires.

But that's one of Cholodenko's generous comic insights – the unpredictability of attraction. Nic and Jules like to snuggle down of a night to watch male gay porn from the 1970s – bronzed truckers and wah-wah guitar. When Laser asks them what the appeal is, his Moms fall over themselves to explain in earnest, vaguely academic grown-up speak: "Sometimes desire can be counter-intuitive, you know? Sometimes it's exciting for us to watch desire externalised."

As Cholodenko demonstrates, adult behaviour can altogether be counter-intuitive. Paul has the makings of a perfect relationship with his co-worker Tanya (Yaya DaCosta), but jeopardises it because he gets hooked on another fantasy entirely. And the sympathetic, quintessentially right-on Jules suddenly behaves abominably to the Latino gardener she's hired for her half-hearted landscaping business.

Adults are deeply imperfect in this picture, even if they are sane, compassionate and all the rest: like accomplished medic Nic, a loving partner and mother who's also crankily controlling, and over-partial to fine wine. The bickering is terrifically done, as is Cholodenko's crisp observation of the self-congratulatory middle-aged Californian dolce vita, all salads, acai smoothies and residual 1970s psychobabble.

Cholodenko, co-writer with Stuart Blumberg, has proven herself to be the film-maker who, outside France, provides the very best roles for intelligent mature actresses (Frances McDormand in Laurel Canyon, Patricia Clarkson in High Art). Here she pulls it off again, with Bening and Moore neatly cast as perfectly matched but wildly different, deeply in love but with unresolved tensions juicily crackling away. Moore's customary reserve nicely breaks down with the borderline-dorky Jules: turning up in gardener's gear and bush hat, she could have stepped out of Doonesbury.

The big surprise is Annette Bening, whom we don't see on screen enough. Here she's a walking advertisement for why Hollywood actors should skip the collagen and age naturally. That's just what Bening has done, and the fine lines round her eyes provide a fabulously elastic map of tenderness and amusement. When she has to signal suppressed disapproval over a dinner table, all she has to do is pucker slightly, and the job is done with eloquent understatement. This is possibly Bening's best performance yet: the dinner scene where she and Ruffalo start duetting Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" not only pinpoints a Californian generation, but manages to be subtly embarrassing and joyous all at once.

The casting is superb all round. Ruffalo is terrific as a likeable doofus whose existence is one extended male mid-life crisis, and Hutcherson and Wasikowska (last seen palely loitering as Tim Burton's Alice) have fun as bemused, tolerant observers of adult folly. This is a very enjoyable piece that avoids the lowest comic denominator – not crowd-pleasing but people-pleasing, if that doesn't sound too West Coast. No doubt, when America swings back to the right, it will be remembered in some quarters as the huggy liberal Obama-era movie par excellence. But right now, The Kids Are All Right comes across as the smartest and sanest American comedy in a long time.

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