“The Descendants” is a film from director Alexander Payne that first came out Oscar ripe. It’s a heavy story that deals with several conflicting emotions that flow from situations that are all too real for many people. It can be a difficult film to watch at times but it can also be quite moving. I can certainly understand the reason for the Oscar buzz it received mainly due to some incredible performances. But the movie both underplays and overplays some parts of the story which for me held it back a tad.
The story follows Matt King (Clooney), a husband and father of two who lives in Hawaii. He’s a rich man who gained his wealth by being a descendant of Hawaiian royalty. He is the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of pristine virgin land on the island of Kauai. But Matt tries to stay grounded. He works as a lawyer and uses that salary to support his family while employing his father’s perspective that you should always work for your money. Matt and his cousins have entertained offers for the land. Some want to sell it to a huge group from Chicago while others want to sell to a local Kauai developer. Matt has the final say and must weigh the wishes of his family with what’s best for the community. We learn most of this in the first few minutes of the movie through expository voice-overs. In many films this could be seen as a crutch but here it works surprisingly well and gives us key elements to the story which sets up what’s to come.
But within the first few minutes of the film it’s revealed that Matt’s wife has had a serious boating accident which leaves her comatose in an intensive care unit. Things look bleak and Matt struggles to bring together his two daughters. One is the impressionable 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and the other is the bitter, irreverent 17-year old Alex (Shailene Woodley). To make matters worse, Matt finds out that his wife has been cheating on him with a younger real estate agent. The story takes Matt on an emotional roller coaster as he tries to balance feelings of anger and betrayal with the reality of his wife’s current state. There is a unique complexity to the story and while there is a lot going on emotionally, Payne makes everything feel genuine and authentic.
While “The Descendants” does keep everything feeling reel, it does overplay a vital element to one of the film’s key relationships. Matt struggles and at times looks inept when it comes to parenting. This was never more clear than in his relationship with his older daughter Alex. Payne certainly portrays her as angry and rebellious but I felt he terribly overdid it. I was particularly turned off by her constant vulgarity and irreverence. Even as their relationship supposedly grows stronger, we see her or her airhead boyfriend speak to Matt as if they were drinking buddies. Woodley gives a brilliant performance but I never completely appreciated her character mainly due to some shoddy writing which kills the otherwise wonderful moments between the two. Her character never truly evolves as I had hoped.
And while it overplays that particular relationship I felt it underplayed the relationship between Matt and his wife. To be fair, we do get all the information we need and I had no trouble understanding the relationship between the two. But I couldn’t help but wish for more. We never see them together before the accident. All of the details of their marriage is brought out through conversations with neighbors and family. It’s a smart method of storytelling and I guess it worked well enough. But the nitpicker in me really would have liked to have seen more.
One of the most important lines in the movie occurs during a conversion Matt has with another character. Matt is told “Everything just happens”. This seems to be a main point that Payne tries to make with this film and we see it throughout the picture. But I couldn’t buy into that premise. I go back to Matt’s relationship with his daughter. Alex’s attitude and disrespect didn’t just happen. She is a product of her parents poor parenting. His wife’s affair didn’t just happen. Her poor decisions and lack of self-control led to the adultery. If “Everything just happens” is a main point as many have said, Payne never sold me on it.
As I mentioned, their are some fantastic performances here. Clooney is controlled and reserved and delivers one of his best performances. I’ve already mentioned the great work from Woodley but young Miller is also quite good. With the exception of the peculiarly cast Matthew Lillard, there are several brief but strong performances from actors like Robert Forster and Beau Bridges. I also loved the use of Hawaii as a location. We do get small glimpses at its island beauty but for the most part Payne treats it as a real place where people live – a community with all the same trials and troubles as any other state. The mix of uniqueness and commonality was very effective.
There is a lot to like with “The Descendants”. It deals with some weighty subject matter in a real and thoughtful way. It shows glimpses of greatness even though it’s brought back down by some poor creative direction that strips one of the more intriguing characters of much of her likability. But I found myself caring about what happened to these people. It’s strong stuff and “The Descendants” handles it all well. It’s a film with a great concept and some great moments. Unfortunately a few speed bumps in the script keep it from being a truly great film.