REVIEW: The Descendants [2011]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 115 minutes | Release Date: November 18th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director(s): Alexander Payne
Writer(s): Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash / Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel)

“Goodbye my love, my friend, my pain, my joy. Goodbye.”

Beginning in voiceover, Alexander Payne’s new film The Descendants introduces us to the King family through its in-over-his-head patriarch. In a brilliant analogy, he posits how his clan resembles their home state of Hawaii very closely—beyond the obvious ancestral roots dating back to the area’s native royalty. Like the archipelago, the Kings consist of differing parts of one whole that appear to slowly move away from each other as time passes. Physically split between islands due to boarding school and work, their nucleus is dissolved as each piece is left to fend for him/herself. Filled with dissention, blame, regret, and guilt, Matt (George Clooney), Alex (Shailene Woodley), and Scottie (Amara Miller) can barely come together to face the tragedy of wife and mother Elizabeth’s (Patricia Hastie) boating accident and resulting coma. Rather than unify, this mishap only drudges up secrets that risk pulling their islands irrevocably apart.

Both our entry point into the film and its lead character, Matt King is a busy man who loves his family but never found a way to prove how much. A rational and good man, he has lived by the code his father taught through his own stint as a parent. No matter how much wealth he and his cousins have inherited through land holdings owned by far gone generations worth millions, Matt refused to spoil and therefore corrupt his family. Living on his law practice salary alone, he hoped to instill a worker-like sense of pride and responsibility in his daughters. But perhaps he forgot the part where he also needed to be there for them to help beyond a need of financial stability. Self-proclaimed the back-up parent, he doesn’t realize this error of priorities until discovering he may lose them all. A switch is flipped inside of him once the idea he may never have the chance to say goodbye to his wife or how much he loves her.

Based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, Payne finds a way to inject us into Matt’s life and connect emotionally with his plight. We can hear a tinge of guilt in his sad narration; his reflective voice uncovering truths he tried to ignore. He hopes to find easy answers, thinking there is a right way to parent if only someone would point him in the correct direction. But with the weight of a legal decision resting on his shoulders that could make his extended family very rich by selling their land holdings, Matt could barely keep his head above water before his wife’s injuries. Having to deal with a ten-year old girl acting out, a seventeen-year old troublemaker cavorting around her private school as though it’s a vacation resort, and the want to tell Elizabeth all the things he’s failed to in the past few years proves too much. Add the discovery that his soulmate had been cheating on him and his rationality risks complete shutdown.

The Descendants then becomes a very quiet, introspective look at a father trying his hardest to keep it together and come out of a chaotic situation with a modicum of grace. Carting along both daughters and Alex’s friend Sid (Nick Krause), the foursome set out to tell family and friends about Elizabeth’s deteriorating situation and let them know goodbyes should come sooner than later. But behind this impetus also rests a desire to find the man who threatened to take his love away before fate put its hand into the mix. Told by his eldest of the adultery, he must walk the tightrope of being a caring father to Scottie, keeping the lie of his wife’s perfection to her gruff old school father (Robert Forster), and staying true to himself and his feelings of betrayal. We see the turmoil in his eyes, the tempestuous waves of emotion crashing inside his mind risking to drown everything surrounding him. For once, though, he is able to see the big picture.

Paced slowly to enhance the weighty issues at play, Payne is able to captivate in his simplicity much like my favorite of his, Sideways. Authentic and refreshingly unafraid to unfold plot with revelations we don’t necessarily see coming, this drama excels in its subtlety—a fact made glaringly obvious once the subplot of their land selling to an investment group pushes its way into the more personal details of Matt’s journey. I can’t help but feel it all might have meant more if the story stayed focused on surviving Elizabeth’s tragedy. Contrivances find a way to sneak in and undermine the deep emotional connection we have with the central quartet as coincidental relationships bond two competing plot threads without need. Experiencing Matt’s epiphany in understanding the meaning of family is enough to believe his evolving decisions. Adding a maybe/maybe not notion his actions are rooted in revenge only belittles the breakthrough.

Thankfully, these instances don’t overshadow the whole. Despite ‘that guy’ comedians Nat Faxon and Jim Rash credited as screenwriters opposite Payne, The Descendants is far from being billed as a comedy. While moments of levity exist—Krause’s Sid is a deceivingly crucial and multi-layered character who’s a riot at key times—it is the tumultuous relationship between Clooney, Woodley, and Miller that raises the bar. Tears are shed and fights are had, but it’s all expected in light of what they’re facing. Woodley succeeds in giving Alex a three-dimensional persona effectively showing teenage rebellion, a profanity-laced disrespect of authority, and a rock solid sense of morality. Her interactions with the others, as well as a strong supporting duo in Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer, add depth to the usual entitled teen cliché. And with Clooney at his finest in a series of increasingly contemplative close-ups, Payne shows his skill at bringing forth award-worthy performances from his leading men once again.

[1] From L to R- Shailene Woodley as “Alexandra,” George Clooney as “Matt King,” Amara Miller as “Scottie” and Nick Krause as “Sid”
[2] Actor George Clooney as “Matt King” on the set of THE DESCENDANTS. Photo Credit: Merie Wallace
[3] Actors Shailene Woodley (L) as “Alexandra” and Nick Krause (R) as “Sid” on the set of THE DESCENDANTS. PHOTO BY: Merie Wallace

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