Sometimes films are all about the main star, other times it’s about the director. And sometimes, as is the case with The Descendants, it’s about both. Director Alexander Payne is here working for the first time with George Clooney, needless to say one of the most famous actors in the world, and together have forged a wonderfully insightful portrait of family life during a personal crisis.
The crisis that kicks the story off – based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings – is Matt King’s (Clooney) wife hitting her head after being flung from a powerboat, causing her to fall into a coma. Matt is now left to look after his two daughters, ages 10 and 17, whom he’s never really looked after on his own before. On top of that he has just found out his wife was having an affair with another man and is feeling the pressure from other family members to sell the valuable Hawaiian land they have inherited.
“My friends think just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise…. Are they insane?” goes Clooney’s opening voice-over. One of the things the film does as a whole is it gives us a look at what Hawaii is really like. Most of us probably think it’s all sandy beaches, clear blue skies, surfing and drinking cocktails all day while hula-dancers do their thing in the background. But the film pulls back that curtain; there are shots of the usual highways and skyscrapers, for instance, to establish this as a location with problem-plagued people just the same… if a better looking one!
That’s purely a surface plus, however. Payne has delivered yet another subtle, effective drama with fantastic performances from the likes of Clooney – mixing his usual incomparable likability with depth of emotion to make for what might just be his finest performance to date – and Shailene Woodley, the latter of which more than manages to hold her own. She’s not exactly a newcomer, having been acting in films for the past 12 years, but is certainly one to watch for the future. I can certainly see this performance opening up doors for her.
The real strength of The Descendants, however, is just how painfully honest it is. While this may not cut to the bone in the same way as, for example, Sideways and About Schmidt, it is nonetheless a refreshingly honest and realistic exploration of how people cope with a family tragedy, how they react to it, what the right and wrong way to act around each other is. No one really knows, and Payne – along with co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash – explore this with admirable panache.
Payne has already perfected his style well before now and this is just another excellent drama from him. It may not be his best film, that honour still falls to Sideways in my eyes, but that’s not exactly the insult it might sound like at first. Effective and affecting, The Descendants tells a simple yet universally relatable story with the charm, necessary believable humour and most importantly genuine emotion that it needed.