Best known for his satirical depiction of modern America Alexander Payne returns after seven years since he directed his last film (Sideways) with The Descendants, a touching and poignant film based on the novel, of the same name, by Hawaii resident Kaui Hart Hemmings. It may lack the satirical and comic elements of his previous films, but The Descendants went on to become a Box Office success as well as being nominated for Best Picture Oscar and winning one in the Best Adapted Screenplay category.
George Clooney is Matt King a lawyer who lives life in luxury surroundings, however his actual life is not as luxurious as his wife was involved in a boating accident that has left her in a coma of which see she is very unlikely to awaken from. With his wife lying unresponsive on a hospital bed the responsibility of his children falls directly on him. Having spent little time with them over the past few years his wife’s accident throws him into the deep end. Matt has to inform friends and family that he has to take his wife off life support. However his eldest daughter Alexander (Shailene Woodley) explains why her relationship with her mother was so fractured and Matt does not like what he hears.
Alexander Payne’s film about family, loss and love is a deeply poignant one that is helped by three supremely effective performances from Clooney, Woodley and Amara Miller (as Scottie). Payne movingly depicts family life in a time of hardship, and displays how each family member is affected by an accident of such serious nature. It takes a catastrophic event such as his wife’s accident to help Matt realize how much he loved her, the eldest sister is angry at her mum for harbouring a secret that would have destroyed the family and the youngest sister doesn’t fully understand the seriousness of the situation (Scottie is believes that her mother is merely sleeping).
Thanks to the moving performances by the central actors The Descendants is a affecting look at not only family, loss and love but forgiveness and acceptance. There are some fine supporting performances by Judy Greer and Robert Forester in particular but the rather dopey stoner/surfer character (played by Nick Krause) may be mildly amusing however it does feel as though he is there for a bit of comic relief, he just seems too stupid and obnoxious to be believable.
Filmed on location The Descendants is undoubtedly a beautiful film to look at as Phedon Papamichael’s striking cinematography not only captures the majestic beauty of the islands but also the fact that people do work and go about their daily lives on the island. The resplendent scenery contrasts against the family’s more troubled lives, it shows that, as stated in the film’s introduction, they may live in exotic surroundings but they are not immune to the issues of life and their heartaches are no less painful. In addition to the film’s visual splendour the soundtrack too is utterly sensational as it contains the works of many Hawaiian artists.
It seems strange that Alex’s drug and guy problems become nonexistent almost instantly, perhaps it is just a crazy theory conducted by her dad, but the film never proves this to be true. The audience can only rely on the word of Alex who claims she has been improving, but it’s like a teenager saying ‘I never drank alcohol underage, honest’. Payne’s latest work lacks the satirical elements of his previous films such as Election, but Payne’s film still contains elements of humour which do work however the film works better as a drama.
There also is a subplot, involving a land deal between the King family and a large firm whose aim is to turn parts of the island into a busy, bustling tourist destination, which is rather contrived in the way it links in with the main story. However the more pressing issue is it’s not quite as interesting as the central story as the pace slows down whether the subplot becomes the main focus point as the viewer is more invested in relationship shared between the father and his two daughters, but the viewer does wish that the land is not sold because why would you want to ruin a perfectly wonderful bit of land?
It takes a horrible event such as a death of a loved one for people to realise how much others mean to them, the King family may have lost a wife and a mother but the events they have experienced means that they are closer to each other than they have ever been before. It’s clear that to get through such a tough time they needed each other. The Descendants shows us the importance of family in a touching, moving and absorbing way.