We don’t see many movies about middle-aged lesbian couples

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival 2010

It’s easy to see why Lisa Cholodenko’s THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT has scored the biggest distribution deal to date at this year’s Sundance. (Focus Features acquired it for a reported $5 million.) Enthusiastically received at its packed premiere on Monday night, this lively crowd pleaser appears to take a conventional form (family dramedy) and give it an unconventional spin (it’s about what you might call a modern family).

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival 2010

The matriarchs of this Los Angeles household are Nic (Annette Bening), a tightly wound doctor who likes a glass (or four) of red wine with dinner, and the flighty Jules (Julianne Moore), who has drifted from one half-baked career to another (the latest is eco-minded landscape design). They have two kids, 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska), who’s spending her last summer at home before college, and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson), who initiates the search for his and Joni’s biological father. Paul (Mark Ruffalo) turns out to be a likable, regular-guy organic farmer/chef whom the family members see in very different ways. To the kids, he’s a cool father figure who exerts no parental authority. To Nic, he’s an instant threat. To Jules, he’s an unexpected turn-on. Presented with a ready-made family he never knew he had, Paul is all too keen take his place in it.

Much of the dialogue has the zingy flavor of TV scripting, but the one-liners are sharp and the breeziness is deceptive. Amid the almost sitcom-like contrivances, Cholodenko (who was at Sundance with HIGH ART and LAUREL CANYON) and her actors (all in top form, especially Bening) create believable, unpredictable characters who might have been drawn with Jean Renoir’s generous maxim in mind: everyone has their reasons.

It’s true that we don’t see many movies about middle-aged lesbians, let alone about lesbian couples dealing with the previously anonymous sperm donor who has suddenly entered their lives. As it winds toward a satisfying, decidedly unsappy conclusion, we realize that THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT is unusual — and cherishable — not so much for its progressive theme or its dramatic complications but for rather more mundane reasons: we don’t see many movies about the comforts and resentments, the day-to-day pleasures and difficulties, of long-term relationships, gay or straight.