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'The Kids Are All Right' is compelling, joyful

"The Kids Are All Right" is, essentially, a film about family: parents, two teenage kids, a spacious home in a generic part of Southern California and, in the establishing scenes, a nice way of all living together.

As it turns out, the parents are two women, Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening), a married couple who share a bond of love and commitment with one another and with their children and have created a wonderful, ordinary, quirky and slightly dysfunctional family.

What is nicely brilliant about this film is that though the audience is aware that the moms are lesbians, that fact soon becomes irrelevant, as unimportant as a straight couple being thought of as heterosexual. Assume that there are countless families from coast to coast that fit this family's profile and then accept that love and support and familial dissonance has nothing to do with sexual identity but is, simply, a matter of our fundamental humanity. This reality makes the strident resistance to same-sex marriage (and gays in the military) seem hurtful and unnecessary and downright bigoted, not to mention unconstitutional. It's a truth embedded in every frame of "The Kids Are All Right," though it is never mentioned. Thankfully, the writers, director Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, allow the screenplay to show and not tell.

So, given that the Jules/Nic family, like all families, is ordinary and extraordinary, has its own rhythms, routines, tics and familiar ways of interacting, it's a given that if a stranger is inserted into this emotional ecology, well, sit back and wait for the disruption. And therein is the dramatic and comedic thread that stitches this story together.

Older daughter, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), 18, on the cusp of going away to college, is urged by her younger brother, Laser (Josh Hutcherson), to find their sperm-donor father, Paul (Mark Roffolo). Remarkably, she is able to track him down and, in an interesting phone conversation, explain that she and Laser would like to meet him (without Jules and Nic being aware of what they are doing).

And so Paul, a motorcycle-riding bachelor and restaurateur who raises organic vegetables, is introduced into the family dynamic, to the initial shock of the two moms. Surprise! Dad's home. The familial gyroscope becomes a bit wobbly, and then a lot wobbly. What was a familiar and nice mess of a family, content in its small dysfunctions, is now forced to make new and comedic and dramatic adjustments, meaning lots of information and interactions need to be, in Nic's words, "processed." Actually when Jules and Nic interact with each other, and with the kids, its as if all the pop-psych language that sprouted in the '60s, and burnished over the last 40 years, is now de rigueur as they strive to be sensitive to and open with their children, often asking for, and giving, way too much information (TMI). Some of the dialogue (not all), sounds a bit hackneyed ("Sometimes you hurt the one you love"). Thankfully, Nic didn't insist that "love means never having to say you're sorry."

With regard to the performances, they are just about perfect.

Bening and Moore are deeply talented actors who inhabit their characters with power and charm and comedic timing. Some scenes are extraordinary. Ruffalo is ideally cast as the outsider who is trying to understand where he might fit in this familial diorama while never quite finding his balance.

If "The Kids Are All Right" is flawed, it's in its ending. Without discussing in detail the conclusion, it seems a bit cold and abrupt, especially given the efforts that Jules and Nic make throughout to "process" their feelings and nurture their relationships. That aside, the film is joyful, stuffed like a sausage with all manner of interesting and even compelling moments that reflect, in so many ways, the challenges of living in a family.

Charlie St. Cloud

The only way to comment on "Charlie St. Cloud" is to start with the demographic: tween/teen girls who are mad for heartthrob Zac Efron. OMG is their response to his presence on screen.

And the writers give these young fans no emotional out. The film is a greeting card designed to make them weep, quietly, as their BFFs sit nearby, also sniffing back stinging tears. Think of it as emotional assault and battery.

In a nutshell, Charlie St. Cloud (Efron) is a good guy, on the cusp of graduating with honors and prepped to leave for Stanford on a sailing scholarship. He has a brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan), who worships him, and a single mom (Kim Basinger) who works to keep them all afloat. Life is good and about to get a whole lot better for Charlie. Of course, in true dramatic fashion — the film is based on the book, "The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud," by Ben Sherwood — Sherwood pulls the metaphorical rug out from under the audience, inserting a tragic event that is sufficiently awful and thereby changes everyone's life.

Trying not to go into too much detail, suffice it to say that Charlie doesn't go to Stanford but ends up living his life as a menial graveyard gardener while dealing with a crushing amount of regret and guilt. Drama. And it gets worse, way before it gets better. More drama. Suspend- your-disbelief drama. But this is, after all, a teen love story, with a touch of "Sixth Sense" thrown in. "I see dead people." Kinda creepy, but nice creepy.

What Zac Efron proves in the movie is that he's more than a teen hunk. He can act. What he needs is a script that will challenge him to move beyond his post-adolescent groove. No doubt, he'll make more movies, and no doubt his trembling OMG fan base will happily show up ready to hyperventilate while texting.