The Descendants (2011) ★ ★ ★ ★
Recent winner of the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture –Drama, The Descendants is a summer film which reminds us that sometimes it’s okay not to exist as an ideal, model family –and its descendants often stray from their allotted path. It’s not altogether a happy ending for the film, although there is a sense of resolution from the rippling drama running throughout it. Director Alexander Payne maintains the motif of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel- with the protagonist reminding us that families are like an archipelago (take Hawaii- for example), closely clustered yet inherently individual.
The film begins rather suddenly, with Matt King (George Clooney) sitting by his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastle) in hospital, as she lies unconscious (and in a powerful coma) before him. Meanwhile, he is responsible among his extended family for deciding what will become of the Hawaiian virgin land on pristine Kauai which has remained in the family trust for 150 years, and is now too much of a burden to hold on to. All this unfolds while Matt, alone, juggles raising his tricky 10-year-old daughter Scottie (played by Amara Miller) and dealing with his misbehaving 17-year-old Alex (of TV fame Shailene Woodley, who received a Golden Globe nominee for her role as supporting actress). The story is mainly filmed from Matt’s eyes, but through its portrayal of generational interactions it tackles the complexities and intricacies of family life, anywhere really.
The entire film is seeping with raw emotion, tension and temperamental intensity. George Clooney’s performance is worthy of his Golden Globe win (Best Actor- Drama). His impassioned soliloquies throughout the story seem difficult to perform, yet are executed theatrically and with dignity. It’s almost as if his enraged frustrated rants at his comatose wife could be performed on stage with the same level of personal involvement for the audience. In fact for a drama, The Descendants is particularly melodramatic, but it does not seem artificial. These are real family crises. Even Shailene Woodley delivers her lines as angsty 17-year-old Alex with an acute intensity and energy, swearing enough to shock the audience into wondering how she gets away with it.
The cinematography is well executed, breaking up the heated dialogue-laden moments with silent landscapes, allowing the audience to contemplate and deliberate while the characters on the screen digest the often harsh and hard-hitting conversations. Hawaii, as a setting, complements the film’s atmosphere with stunning backdrops suiting the active easy-going lifestyles of the characters but also acting as a classic antithesis to the total dissonance of the King family life. It’s hard not to get sentimental –even close friends are dragged into the swirling mess of misunderstanding and madness surrounding Elizabeth King. And to top it all off –before the accident she was having an affair.
Comic relief is aplenty and sometimes it’s hard not to laugh at Clooney’s over-developed infuriation at his impossible circumstances. Alex’s slightly dopey friend Sid (Nick Krause) delivers his inappropriate butt-ins with spot-on timing and their blatantly offensive manner is a recipe for chuckling. As the film progresses we delve deeper into the characters and their relationships, and there are several heart-warming moments that will see this film become a “timeless classic” – as Alexander Payne claimed when he accepted his Golden Globe. One thing is for sure; it’s a must-see, or at least an excuse for a good cry.