The Descendants: Legacy and Fatherhood on the Hawaiian Islands
Leaving the theater after watching Alexander Payne’s new film The Descendants, I was in admiration of what Payne had accomplished. I wasn’t deeply emotionally moved by the film, I didn’t roll in the aisles with constant laughter, and I wasn’t personally challenged by the film in any way. However, there’s nothing wrong with a very palatable, very tastefully done film that captures accurately the essence of legacy and manhood better than the overwhelming majority of Hollywood films about families and fathers. Terrific performances across the board and a nuanced, subtler script than Payne’s usual fare make this his most heartfelt effort to date and certainly his most accessible to audiences (and Oscar votes) everywhere.
We begin with a shot of Elizabeth King, happy, riding on a speedboat of some sort over the water. After the credits, we meet her husband Matt (George Clooney), who informs us that after a speedboat accident, Elizabeth has been in a coma for a few weeks. He comes from a line of Hawaiian royalty, so he is the sole trustee of a large parcel of land on Kauai, and he and his family are trying to determine the best people to buy this land as he tries to raise his 10-year-old daughter (Amara Miller). When conditions worsen for his wife, he brings home his rebellious teenage daughter (Shailene Woodley) from boarding school, and they prepare for imminent loss. In the meantime, Matt learns something about his wife that will change his perception of her deeply.
It’s not the film’s events that make the movie unpredictable, it’s the manner in which they unfold. Scenes of emotional torment at home, scenes with a comatose wife, scenes in which a father-in-law (Robert Forster) blames the husband, scenes with a mother-in-law suffering from Alzheimer’s—these seem like melodramatic fare, but every bit of it is handled with a delicate realism. Very few shots with tears or yelling, it’s people understanding the situation and having complex emotions regarding the complications. No character is initially what he seems: Matt King is a multi-millionaire who tries to live in a middle-class house and force his kids to have a normal life, yet Matt struggles to see past the stoner exterior of Sid (Nick Krause), a surfer male friend of his eldest daughter, or his cousin (Beau Bridges, doing a spot-on impression of his brother Jeff) who seems to have the purest intentions in selling the land to native Hawaiians. Even a key character played by Matthew Lillard later on isn’t initially what he believe him to be.
Clooney, who it seems improves as an actor with every new major role nowadays, does some of his finest work to date here. What came across as smug and ironic early in his career has given way to intelligence and earnestness under the guise of being a charmer. He doesn’t overplay a single moment, he balances humor with frustration perfectly. An even bigger revelation for me is Woodley, whose TV work I’m unfamiliar with, but who plays a parts that could have easily been a cliche with dignity– her character’s foul mouth and rebellious demeanor come from anger based on intense family loyalty. She’s bored and looking to push boundaries like many teenage girls, but her growth is never forced and her reactions are constantly unexpected. Credit Payne’s script as well: I kept waiting for her to give a speech to Dad or to sleep with Sid or to cuss out family enemies, but instead we’re given a far more vivid, far more realistic depiction of a teen in times of stress. (Payne does include a trademark Payne character in Sid, a seemingly one-note buffoon who peels back a layer or two here and there, in a performance by Krause I foolishly dismissed as merely comedic early on.)
During a time in which movies preach either gloom and doom or patronizing cure-alls to our woes, Payne gives us hope in realism. The final image, which I wouldn’t dare spoil, was personally quite comforting. We certainly receive the trademark message about the importance of family and legacy, and the usual Payne themes on the difficulty of being a contemporary man, but they sneak up on you in a way that I wasn’t prepared for. If this film was a boxing match, there’s no knockout punch– you’re unlikely to start bawling in the middle, and you may leave the theater as I did feeling like you weren’t as emotionally attached to the drama as you would expect. Payne does however deliver a series of body blows, which never knocked me out, but I felt them the next day. The delicate efficiency with which Payne builds and shares these characters is rarely seen in anything resembling studio work. The Descendants is a sneakily feel-good movie that is so well-made that, much like the wines Paul Giamatti fancies in Payne’s Sideways, I have a hunch it may get even better with age.
Note: if you’ve never been to Kauai, go. It might be the most gorgeous place on Earth, and The Descendants captures it beautifully.