Movie Review: The Descendants
By Matthew Huntley
November 30, 2011

I wouldn't like to come across *this* crew in a dark alley.

The end of the year makes it more difficult to go into movies unbiased, as this is when studios start to release their award-season hopefuls as a mean to cash in on critical praise. Therefore, we just expect (and hope) the movies will be good. The Descendants is no exception, a film the studio has probably bet money on to bring home the gold statues. Consider the director (Alexander Payne), the star (George Clooney) and the release date (late November) - these qualities alone practically demand we think it’s good even before we see it. Fortunately, the film lives up to its preconceived acclaim.

In the tradition of other Alexander Payne works (About Schmidt, Sideways), this is an honest and touching human story in which the characters behave not according to a plot, but to life’s unexpected and sometimes painful developments. Like his other films, The Descendants confronts issues like infidelity, wounded relationships, death and eventually healing. Its trajectory is not unlike other stories we’ve been told before, particularly ones from Payne, and for that reason it’s probably not as compelling or original, but that’s not to say every moment in it doesn’t have a ring of truth.

The film opens on a close-up of a woman water skiing. Her name is Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie), an active, vital woman whom we learn only minutes later is now in a terminal coma after her boat crashed and she hit her head. Her husband, Matt (George Clooney), sits across from her in an Oahu hospital, where he gathers his thoughts and tells us that just because they live in Hawaii, which is often celebrated as a 24/7 paradise, he and his family are not immune to life’s problems and hardships. And having money like Matt doesn’t automatically make you prone to happiness.

Matt is the sole executor of a family fortune that was passed down from his Hawaiian ancestors. He and his cousins were entrusted with a highly valuable piece of land on Kauai, which, if Matt decides to sell to imminent buyers, will leave him and his family extremely wealthy. But in light of his wife’s accident, he has greater problems to face. Her doctor informs him that Elizabeth is essentially brain dead and that he’s under legal obligation to honor her wishes and unhook the machines keeping her alive. On top of that, his daughters are starting to act out and have approached those difficult ages where they’re becoming somewhat unbearable. Ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) is making inappropriate art projects and texting hurtful messages to her classmates; and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is drinking at boarding school. Matt goes to pick her up so she can help deal with the forthcoming family drama when he has to tell everyone Elizabeth is going to die.

Then Alexandra brings on more bad news. She says the reason she and her mother were fighting was because Elizabeth was having an affair. Matt is crushed, although not for the usual reasons. When he learns his wife was in love with another man and about to ask for a divorce, he seems more angry and cheated that she beat him to it. Their marriage was not the most blissful one and they were entering a time when it was becoming harder to live with each other. At its heart, The Descendants is about persevering through this time and patiently waiting for happiness to come around again. What it doesn’t do is promise it’s going to come back.

What’s special about a film like The Descendants is it doesn’t operate according to any pre-defined structure. In it, just as in real life, things happen, and they can be wild and unpredictable, but we know we have to face them because others are counting on us. For Matt, he not only has his daughters to think about, but also his entire extended family, and by the end of the film, he will have to make some hard decisions that affect them all, and even though it may not be readily apparent, he grows stronger for making them.

The film contains some very fine performances. George Clooney, who’s always been a reliable force on-screen, goes against his usual charming, tough-guy persona and shows a great deal of sensitivity and vulnerability. When he cries, looks worried or overwhelmed, he’s not going for a false affect. Payne brings these emotions out of him and they’re completely convincing. We sympathize with Matt on a genuine level.

Clooney is equally matched by Woodley, whose Alex character isn’t made out to be the usual, I-hate-the-world teenage daughter. She’s given more weight and dimension and I liked how she and Matt sort of team up to investigate Elizabeth’s affair. In a more conventional drama, Matt would leave Alex in the dark and she would storm off, but he utilizes her and treats her like a person, which allows them to grow closer.

The supporting actors are just as memorable, including Nick Krause as Alex’s dense and insensitive friend Sid, who looks and behaves like a dumb-as-rocks surfer dude but who eventually a reveals an inner pain that Matt respects and responds to. Robert Forster is brutally effective as Matt’s gruff and grief-stricken father-in-law, who grills Matt about his marriage and money. There comes a point when the screenplay gives Matt the chance to fight back, but it resists the easy urge and we understand why. And Judy Greer has a small but significant role as the wife of Elizabeth’s lover. She shares a moment with Matt where her eyes say more than words ever could.

Films like The Descendants are the kind we think are very good when we see them and then grow on us over time. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, but it is a special film because it moves us in a way few films do. Although elegantly shot around the islands of Hawaii, it doesn’t let the locations overshadow the story, reminding us even the most paradisiacal places have real people in them trying to find answers. The film suggests it’s only when we go with our hearts and learn to forgive ourselves (and others) that paradise becomes something we feel instead of somewhere we go.