The Descendants (2011)

Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer based on the Hawaiian island of Honolulu, is struggling to control his tumultuous youngest daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), in the wake of his wife’s boating accident, one which has subsequently left her comatose with little chance of ever regaining consciousness. With mounting pressure from his extended family to sell the 25,000 acres of land comprising the King trust-fund, making them all millionaires in the process, Matt reaches out to Alex (Shailene Woodley), his estranged elder daughter for help. When it is revealed that wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) might have been cheating on her husband prior to the accident, the family – along with Alex’s enjoyably simple friend Sid (Nick Krause) – set off to discover who the other man might have been.

Eager to dispel the notion that Hawaii is some sort of pain-free paradise, director Alexander Payne employs a lengthy and unwieldy narration in order to set the scene and dispense with over a hundred years of familial backstory. It is an unusual way to begin a movie which otherwise speaks so confidently and eloquently for itself, an offloading of information and legality attempting to sell Clooney as a dishevelled, workaholic lawyer who has neglected his wife and children for years, not least the island that he and his ancestors have called home since the 1840s. It is a distracting, alienating device which – in addition to the relentlessly Hawaiian soundtrack – jars with the actual narrative. Unlike the music, however, the voice over is mercifully short-lived.

From the moment Clooney ceases to address the audience directly, The Descendants takes flight. A raw, touching, often amusing tale of love and loss, the film frames a universal spread of family dramas and soap operatics against a backdrop of picture-perfect scenery and the beat of flip flopping sandals. Payne’s Hawaii is populated by stricken fathers, dementia-laden mothers and bickering cousins. It is an island populated by complicated souls with complex relationships, as not even the oft-vilified adulterers escape without a thorough lashing of humanity. In dispensing with the usual tropes and caricatures, the director has created one of the most layered and enriching dramadies you are likely to see this year, a film that never settles for cliché when it can do justice to human suffering and coping in all its varied glory.

Clooney excels as Matt King, his hurt and confusion realised in one of the actor’s most disarming performances to date. Deprived of his usual sleek, sardonic stare, Clooney finds both the drama and the comedy in the situation, without ever forcing a choreographed tear or cracking a clever joke. Woodley also impresses as the family’s resident boarding school-relegated loose canon. By refusing to play the traditional bratty teenager, we are instead faced with a surprisingly responsible young woman who’s behaviour – just like that of her younger sibling – Matt will simply never understand. There is no sad facing, just undiluted hurt and anger and love. It is a throwaway interaction between Clooney’s character and Sid’s stoner tag-along which best illustrates the film’s approach to dramatics to me, however, with the revelation that Sid has also recently lost a parent not being met by the expected apology, but a simple “Good night, Sid” instead.

A film that is perhaps almost as rough around the edges as Clooney’s schlubby Matt, with a number of elements that don’t quite gel, The Descendants refuses to wrap proceedings up in a big, gaudy Hollywood bow and is all the better for it. With just about every scene surprising you in some way, it is one of the most remarkable and rewarding films of the year. But the best? I suppose we’ll have to let the Academy decide.


About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

2 Responses to The Descendants (2011)

  1. Pingback: January 2012 – Your Mom Got Chased By A Shark Once « popcornaddict

  2. Nostra says:

    Nice review and a movie I really enjoyed and can’t wait to rewatch. Clooney was great in it and wouldn’t be surprised if he walks away with the Oscar.

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