Review: The Descendants

English: George Clooney at the 2009 Venice Fil...

English: George Clooney at the 2009 Venice Film Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I never thought that The Descendants would generate this much hype. It seemed like one of those sweet indie dramas that would get swept under the sea when the wave of award contenders gracefully roared in. Instead it has been battling the major movies at the top, already winning Best Picture and Best Actor in the drama category at the Golden Globes and now it has been nominated for five Academy Awards at the 84th Oscar ceremony.

Lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) is the trustee to 25,000 acres of land on the island of Kaua’I, which his ancestors have owned since the 1860s. In seven years time the trust will expires so Matt is in the process of selling the land to make some money for his broke cousins. However, this business is put on hold when a tragic boating accident leaves Matt’s wife, Elizabeth, in a coma that she will never wake from. Matt has to learn to cope with a world without his wife and a secret she had been keeping while looking after his two challenging daughters, Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller).

The opening scene shows the blissful moment of Elizabeth riding on a boat, she is gleaming while wisps of blue waves dance in the background. You can’t help but automatically judge that this scene is too good, too perfect so something has to go wrong, and then the screen fades to black.

Alexander Payne’s first directorial project in seven years sounds like an emotionally draining grim tale, made even worse by the news to follow, but it is somehow able to remain afloat. Payne is able to provide a balance of seriousness and humour to manipulate a poignant work of art in cinema.

I thought The Descendants would be about Matt and his daughters struggling after the death of his wife and their mother, instead it illustrates the build-up to death itself.Matt is clueless to the fact that his perfect wife was deceived him. It is his eldest daughter Alex who informs him that Elizabeth was having an affair with Brian Speer, a real estate agent. The affair brings a great dimension to the movie which would have been left stale otherwise. Matt, along with his two daughters and Alexandra’s friend, Sid, travel to Kaua’I to track down Brian so he has a chance to say goodbye to her. Instead of feeling grief and regret for his wife’s state, Matt finds rage in her lies.

All the characters in The Descendants are individualists who you can’t help feeling sympathetic towards as they each have their own issues to deal with. Matt had to adapt to taking care of his descendants. He was an extremely inexperienced awkward dad who, like he admits, has not spend any time with his children. In some scenes I found myself pleading to Matt to hug his daughters, but he wouldn’t. He just stood there, even when he told Alex that her mother was going to die. Alex was Matt’s biggest support in the movie and their father and daughter relationship was fascinating. What I found interesting was that Matt wanted everyone to believe that Elizabeth was a devoted wife. Elizabeth’s dad blamed Matt for her accident as he wouldn’t let her buy a better boat. As Elizabeth’s dad became meaner towards Matt, he still couldn’t bear to tell the truth of what his wife had done.

Both his daughters are troubled, neglected and unloved. Alex has been sent to a boarding school on another Hawaiian island and when Matt and Scottie go to take Alex home, the teenager is hammered. Following down the same route, ten year old Scottie is a bad-mouthed rebel. Sid was a memorable character with many layers. He was smarter than he appeared. For the majority of the movie Sid acted dumb, but when he, Matt and Alex are in the car, Sid puts on this very serious defensive voice and it shows he chooses to be the person who he is. George Clooney was out of his comfort zone in this film. He is usually the rigid businessman, however here he was the rigid family man. Clooney’s simple expressions were the only guidance through a whirlwind of emotions in silent still moments. He gave the performance of his life.

However, it was the young actors who stole the show, especially, Shailene Woodley; her performance was exceptional as the lost teenager. One of the most moving moments for me was when Alex is screaming and crying in the water when she realises her mum is going to die. It is devastating.

Hawaii is depicted in an entirely different light, from busy streets to grey skies: not the peaceful paradise we judge and hope it to be. It is after all a functioning state. The first few minutes give us Matt’s thoughts on paradise in Hawaii. His voice over concludes with: “I think paradise can go fuck itself”. However, it is impossible to film Hawaii and not show its beauty. A grainy quality to the camera captures the location with blues and greens absorbed into luxurious turquoise oceans while a Hawaiian inspired soundtrack plays in the background.

The 25,000 acres of land is an issue Matt struggles with during Elizabeth’s death. We only see the piece of land once and it seems a place filled with fond memories. Elizabeth’s comatose state helps Matt adopt new priorities about his family and the land of Hawaii. The ending is as good as it could be under these circumstances. Both the opening and the ending scenes are connected by the same bittersweet feeling.

Indie films have turned into the opposite of what they define. Now anything that has that realistic cinematography edge and reflects real life is placed into the mainstream brand. However, it shouldn’t matter what category a film fits into, what matters is the film as a whole, what it represents. The Descendants is a very honest film that depicts a family in the worst of storms, but this is the time when the characters grow and bond to rise again.



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