McClatchy Newspapers

CHICAGO – A movie is made up of a thousand details. Take, for example, the “numb tongue” story in the coming comedy-drama, “The Kids Are All Right.”

The story comes from co-writer and director Lisa Cholodenko’s own mouth. “In my 20s,” she says, “I had some weird episode, this weird stress reaction. I was going through some stressful stuff, and I lost feeling in my face, and in my tongue. So I went to a doctor. He said he didn’t think I had MS or a brain tumor. He said, ‘I think you’re just stressed out.”‘

A couple of decades passed, and there was Cholodenko, at her computer, revising her latest screen-play for the umpteenth time. “And I thought, well, the numb-tongue story … that’s a neurotic story, and one of the characters I’m writing is sort of neurotic. So I used it. I wove it into the story of how this couple met.”

But later somebody, somewhere, told Cholodenko that the story — fictionalized as the instigation for a meeting between a doctor and a patient, lesbians and soon-to-be-lovers — was too much. Too gamey? Too lesbianic? Too something. She and co-writer Stuart Blumberg cut it from their screenplay.

this time Cholodenko was searching for financing, inching closer. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore had become attached to the project. Bening, Cholodenko says, was a dramaturgical fiend, asking all the right questions. During one script meeting, the actress urged her to reinstate the numb-tongue story.

She liked it; it humanized her character, the sternest of the lot, and warmed her up. The tongue went back in. The film got made.

At its Sundance Film Festival world premiere, the waves of love started crashing in around Cholodenko and company. “The Kids Are All Right” charmed audiences, utterly. Focus Features paid nearly $5 million for it. And in a summer when descriptors such as “beguiling” and “moving” and “funny” haven’t been used much, Cholodenko’s third theatrical feature may turn out to be the seasonal highlight. And maybe the American film of 2010.

The story is all there in the film’s trailers and coming attractions; what’s less apparent from those snippets is the way Cholodenko blends humor and pathos and sends the audiences out on a satisfying high, having spent time with some rich and complicated characters. In Los Angeles, Nic (Bening), a doctor, lives with her longtime partner, Jules (Moore), who is starting a landscape design business.

Privately, their teenage children, played by Mia Wasikowska (“Alice in Wonderland”) and Josh Hutcherson (“Journey to the Center of the Earth”) contact their sperm-donor father, portrayed as an amiable, aging satyr by Mark Ruffalo.

What follows has the ring of melodrama — infidelity, betrayal, lies, secrets — but as in Cholodenko’s previous theatrical features, “High Art” (1998) and “Laurel Canyon” (2002), the characters emerge as dimensional and honest.

“We really wanted to get this family right,” co-writer Blumberg says. “We wanted a family that was wonderful and flawed and compelling, and that you really wanted to survive.”

Actress Moore, a big fan of “High Art” (Ally Sheedy and Radha Mitchell, falling together slowly in the drug-addled margins of the New York art world) and “Laurel Canyon” (an evocative slice of LA music-business denizens and their relations, starring Frances McDormand, Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale), read the “Kids” script several years ago and committed to it in a heartbeat.

Cholodenko, she says, “is interested in the ways people communicate and the nuances of behavior. Her movies are more about who we are, and how we fall in love with each other and who we choose to be with, than they are plot-oriented.”

All the same: With luck and some shrewd marketing, “The Kids Are All Right” has a chance to find a wide audience by indie standards. Earlier this month Cholodenko conversed with a diverse audience — gay, straight, older, younger — after a promotional “Kids Are All Right” screening in downtown Chicago. Cholodenko, both self-deprecating and sharp-witted about the challenge of getting the movie financed, brought out the audience’s warmest, most protective instincts. “Just be proud of what you accomplished!” one woman said near the end of the discussion, beaming. Cholodenko smiled back.

“Wasn’t that sweet?” Cholodenko said the next morning over coffee. “That’s what I like about the Midwest. The people are just more available and straightforward, in a good way. That’s a crass generalization, but when you blow in and out of town. …”