Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

Genre: Drama/Comedy
Premise: After her 18th birthday, a young girl and her brother go looking for their sperm-donating biological father, who subsequently becomes a part of their lives.
About: The Kids Are All Right stars Mark Ruffalo, Annette Benning and Julianne Moore and is directed by one of its writers, Lisa Cholodenko. Cholodenko’s first film was “High Art,” and her second was the underappreciated character-piece, Laurel Canyon, starring Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsdale. “Kids” went into Sundance way under the radar but came out one of the big winners, as audiences seemed to love it, and Focus Features bought the film.
Writers: Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg
Details: 122 pages (March 2009 draft)

Just when I was starting to give up on the Sundance crop, this script jumped into my pile, did a dance, and gave me hope again. Within ten pages I could tell why audiences at Sundance loved it. While it’s not as broad as, say, the hit TV show “Modern Family,” it explores a lot of the same themes – namely that there’s no such thing as a simple family anymore.

First we meet Laser (grr, I know – I don’t like the name either), an emo-ish 15 year old who’s looking for a father figure. His sister is Joni, 18, beautiful, seemingly perfect – yet she has some issues getting in touch with her emotions. Their first mom (yes, I said “first”) is Jules, in her 40s, emotionally fragile and constantly trying to keep it together, and rounding out the family is Nic, the “other” mom, a doctor who cares more about her career than her wife. Meet the Allgoods.

Because Joni has just turned 18, she can now officially file to find out who her biological father is. Joni could care less about her father though. It’s daddy-hunting Laser who’s been waiting for this day. Since he knows his moms will flip if he even broaches the subject, Joni is his only lifeline to meeting the man who supplied half of his genetic code. With only weeks before Joni leaves for college, it’s either now or never. With plenty of annoyed resistance, Joni puts in the call. After the father allows his name to be released, a phone call is made and a meeting is set.

The two head off on their secret mission, which is how we meet Paul, the "father" in question. Paul not only grows vegetables in his own garden, but does so to provide fresh ingredients for the RESTAURANT HE OWNS. He’s cool, he’s funny, he’s intelligent, he’s hip. He is basically the COOLEST DAD EVER. He had Laser at Hello, but it’s the puddle of drool under Joni’s chair that’s most surprising. What was supposed to be the equivalent of dropping Laser off for a play date has turned into a two hour love-fest. In this seemingly perfect man's eyes, they see an entire piece of their lives that they missed out on. And it's time to start making up for it.

Jules and Nic, who it should be noted have begun to drift apart, are horrified when they hear about Laser and Joni’s field trip. Although they claim their disappointment stems from the fact that the kids weren’t open and honest with them, maybe, just maybe, it’s because they feel threatened.

But these worms are so far out of the can you might as well stick a hook in'em. Paul is digging Joni and Laser just as much as they dig him, and before you know it, he’s coming over for dinners and birthdays, integrating himself into the family's life.

While Jules quickly warms up to Paul, Nic is increasingly threatened by him. It's hard enough to control a family that's slowly slipping away from you, but adding Paul to the equation is like coating those tensely gripped fingers in oil. And when Paul hires Jules to work on his garden – a new profession of Jules' that Nic is clearly opposed to – well that’s pretty much the end of the line. She knows nothing about this family will ever be the same again.

The Kids Are All Right is just a really good little screenplay. It takes a tried and true formula – dump an unpredictable variable into a bowl of constants, mix, see what happens – and milks it for everything it’s worth. But watching Paul infiltrate the Allgoods with his innocent charm, winning them over one by one, wasn't just fun because of the endless amount of conflict it created. It's fun because we know it can't possibly last. We know that sooner or later it's all going to crash and burn. And as much as we're dreading it, there's that naughty side of us that can't wait for the carnage.

But what really makes this screenplay shine is the character work. I got into some heated discussion the other day regarding the plotlessness of another Sundance screenplay, but believe it or not, I don't require a plot in everything I read. IF. If the character's internal journey is clear. In The Kids Are All Right, everyone is trying to overcome the defining faults that have shaped their lives. Because these flaws are laid out so clearly, the lack of plot doesn't matter, because we understand what our character's need to accomplish by the story's end.

When we meet Laser, we see how jealous he is watching his best friend play with his father. When we meet Joni, we see that she’s unable to emotionally connect with the man who loves her. When we meet Jules, she’s listening to self-help tapes, obsessed with finding emotional balance. And with Nic, we see that she’s unwilling to make an effort in her marriage. Since each individual problem is presented to us as soon as we meet the characters, there is no confusion over what they must overcome - an issue that plagues poorly constructed characters. I think this is one of the most essential components to good character work, and "Kids" knocks it out of the park.

But probably the most powerful aspect of all when it comes to The Kids Are All Right, is that it leaves a big smile on your face. It makes you want to make changes to your own life. It makes you want to go work on your own screenplays. In short, it does what we're all desperately trying to accomplish. It inspires.

Script link: Link taken down

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Giving us any sort of time frame for your story puts us at ease. It lets us know exactly where the story is going and when it’s going to end. It’s why ticking time bombs, in all their forms, work so well. But not every story requires a character to get to the other side of the city within 90 minutes or his wife blows up. When your screenplays are more character-driven, consider adding “soft ticking time bombs,” time frames that maybe don’t have a direct effect on the storyline, but gently keep it focused. In The Kids Are All Right, we have Jules working on Paul’s garden. And more definitively, Joni’s moving off to college in a couple of weeks. These are soft reminders that the story is approaching an end point, and in the process keep us focused. If you hear the criticism that your story is “wandering,” add a few soft ticking time bombs to bring your readers focus back where it belongs.