Alexander Payne‘s 7 year follow up to the critically acclaimed Sideways is worth the wait, in fact it’s not only worth the wait, but it’s also worthy of high praise. Praise for a very personal performance by George Clooney, who continues to impress this year after directing and starring in The Ides of March. The Descendants is a very honest film with damaged characters that are all doing their best with the unfortunate situation that has fallen right in the middle of everyone’s lives. It’s not a film for those looking for a quick cheer up on a sad day; it’s much more complex than that because life as you know it is far more difficult.
Matt King (George Clooney) is the backup parent. He’s the one that’s always working and keeping things in line. His wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is the one that usually communicates with his two daughters. Matt isn’t a bad father by any means, but he’s not the most approachable. He’s a wealthy man that believes in earning what you have. Instead of pissing all of his money away or giving it all to his wife and children he decides it’s best to save it and continue working.
Life takes an unfortunate turn for Matt and his family when his wife is put into a coma after a boating accident. Matt’s youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is coping with the event in the oddest way; taking hundreds of pictures of her mom and sharing them with classmates while sending nasty text messages to fellow students. Kids will be kids, but that’s exactly the problem. Matt doesn’t know how to deal with his kids. He’s never really had to do much more than say stop it really loud and hope it worked.
His oldest daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is a bit more troubled. She’s had her fair share of problems with various substances and older men which landed her on another island in Hawaii at a disciplinary school. The last time she was with the family she had a fall out with her mother and hasn’t kept in contact much.
Things take a grim turn when doctors inform Matt that his wife’s condition isn’t going to get better. In accordance with her will the machines will turn off once it’s positive that her progression has stopped. This horrible news falls right into Matt’s lap as he’s in the middle of closing a big deal at work regarding a big piece of land that his great ancestors passed down to him and his cousins. Matt being the most responsible is the sole person in charge of this decision that will make him and his family rich while making Hawaii’s beautiful land more of a tourist attraction.
But things get much worse.
While trying to break the news to Alexandra another big fork gets thrown into the story. Elizabeth was cheating on Matt and that’s why Alexandra got so heated and left. Now, on top of his wife’s death and dealing with telling family and friends Matt must close this big business deal and find out whom his wife was seeing and if it was true love or just some hot fling.
The Descendants is an emotional journey for Matt. Matt doesn’t simply learn how to appreciate what he has, but he learns how to fully understand it. He has two daughters that are very different from each other, but both looking for the same things from their father, which are a love, care and respect. Matt understanding his daughters and how special they really are leads into him starting to appreciate them more. Life isn’t about making money or making money for your cousins, it’s about what you do for someone else to make them happy and to make yourself happy.
Life is a long bumpy road that not everyone asks for, but we still must do the best we can. That doesn’t mean showing up to every single soccer game that your kid has, but it means showing them how important they are to you. The Descendants works best when it shows this. Matt has an awful lot on his plate, but how he balances it and how he handles encounters really makes the film more enjoyable and much more honest.
The film is set on Hawaii and it’s the perfect choice. People think of Hawaii as the relaxed paradise that is a constant vacation, but they forget that real people live there too. People with problems just like you. Hawaii is just as much a part of the story as Matt is. From the outside Hawaii looks fun and beautiful, but on the inside it’s complicated. If you want to be technical you can say the volcanoes and mountain activity are its complications, but what I’m getting at is the people that live on the island. It’s not always rainbows and sunshine.
George Clooney gives a very honest and heartwarming performance. It’s often times tear inducing because of the pain he has to deal and how he handles it. Matt never quits or goes overboard even though he probably could have with reasoning and Clooney understands that balance. He maintains a collective calmness throughout the whole film, but he doesn’t get shy when it comes to letting you into his emotions and understanding his combination of sadness and anger.
Shailene Woodley plays the oldest daughter Alexandra. Her transformation in the film is slow, never forced, but very even. She starts out the film as a complete bitch with tons of disrespect for her father and everyone around her, but as the film progresses so does she. By the end of the film she grows on you. Her character is full of love, but you just have to earn her trust and understanding. Catching your mother cheat on your father is probably one of the hardest things in life to experience, but Woodley plays it out exactly how you’d think a growing teenager would.
Alexander Payne really deserves more credit. He’s a director that not many mainstream folks know, but they should. The Descendants is such a perfect family drama that every single person can somehow relate to. This is the type of film that should be bringing in loads of money at the box office, not Tower Heist. He has a great eye for storytelling that’s depressing, but not overly depressing. You’ll feel sad and horrible at times, but you’ll also be laughing your ass off throughout The Descendants. It has every emotion under the sun.
I knew as The Descendants was reaching an end that it’s one of my favorite films of the year. There isn’t a single error in the whole film. The pacing moves steady, never sulking in specific scenes for too long. The acting is phenomenal and even Oscar worthy for some. The score is calm and soothing, which helps capture the beauty of the Hawaiian location. Payne’s camerawork is steady and focused, never hanging onto a frame too long. I can’t say enough good things about The Descendants. It’s a real drama without any added garbage. Its characters are real people surrounded in a real world with real problems that some people face every day. I honestly can’t see how anyone couldn’t relate to this film on some level. Films like this are rare to come by, so embrace it and enjoy it!
The Descendants – 10/10