Monday, December 5, 2011

The Descendants (2011)

I went in to see The Descendants knowing nothing about the film, but as soon as the opening credits rolled, I knew I was in for a treat, with Alexander Payne at the helm and George Clooney playing lead. And a strong film about family and loss followed the opening credits and monologue, set in on the islands of Oahu and Kauai.

Based on a novel, Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) gets into a boating accident, leaving her comatose and on her way to death. She's leaving behind her husband, Matt King (George Clooney), who is, along with his many cousins, heirs to a large untouched portion of land on the island of Kauai, as well as their two children, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). As the family copes with their inevitable loss, a secret about Elizabeth turns Matt's coping upside down, adding to the stress of becoming an ill-equipped sole parent to Alex and Scottie and also having to make a decision about the fate of their ancestral lands, which were, by law, to be sold in the next seven years.

Like Payne's most recent movies, there's nothing particularly high concept about The Descendants. Rather, the movie does well by following the arc of the last moments in the life of Elizabeth and while she's the glue that ties the story together, the film is mostly about the relationships that Matt had with her, the relationships he has with his daughters, and his learning what it means to be a father, husband, and inheritor of a legacy.

All this is done with an observational style, reminiscent of Payne's adaptation of Sideways, the film itself capturing with a natural touch, the development of character and story via the simple interactions that they have with each other. This means the actors are in the spotlight for the majority of the film and they all perform admirably with Clooney anchoring and driving the film subtly, and Payne keeping a good measure of the comedy-drama balance. The production itself is quite clean too, lit up in a natural kind of warmth that keeps the film from ever seeming melodramatic. Add in a soundtrack filled with local Hawaiian music and you have solid feature film.

I did find it strange that, for a film set in Hawaii, there was such an abundance of white people and a scant number of Asians, who make up the majority of the population, but this is also set in the world of the wealthy haole elite, so perhaps it's not so surprising. The film is a solid character and relationship study, done with subtlety, humor, and warmth, but unafraid to approach the difficult emotions conjured by loss and betrayal, while also keeping a strong note of hope throughout it all. And this, I think, despite the fact that the film might not seem so interesting without a big hook, makes The Descendants such a pleasing film to see. Go give it some love. 8/10