Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley,Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster
UK Release date: 27 January 2012
Certificate: 15 (115 mins)
Aloha, welcome to a film set in Hawaii that is both wonderful and heart wrenching at the same time. Like any good surfer will tell you the pain in your stomach muscles coming up to ride the waves is something you never envisage as being part of the package. You just do not expect it. Similarly, any notion you have of Hawaii as an idyllic island with stunning beaches and endless surf and contented people are thrown into cold the Pacific whilst watching this hard-hitting film. Like anywhere else it is full of people trying to make sense of their lives and those they love.
Alexander Payne’s latest offering The Descendants is based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings who wrote it aged 28, whilst living in San Francisco as a full time mum. It is another opportunity for us to admire Payne’s skill at portraying middle-aged men trying to cope with a mid life crisis badly. In some cases the characters in his films have crises of their own making, such as Sideways and About Schmidt, but in this film the opening scene of a mother being injured in a boating accident changes the lives of everyone connected with her. Payne’s dark humour and acerbic observations of middle aged men has never been better portrayed than George Clooney as Matt King, the central character of the story. The film has already won two Golden Globe Awards, won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay as well as having four other nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Clooney.
King (Clooney) is a Honolulu based lawyer who is the trustee of a family trust that owns, thanks to their forefathers, 25,000 acres of prime real estate on the island of Kaua’i. The family members are willing for King to sell the land for a considerable fortune that will be shared across the family. The only stipulation is the buyer must be local and a native of the island. Property developer Don Holitzer fits the bill. But there is a twist.
Tragedy unfolds from the outset for the dishevelled lawyer. King’s wife, Elizabeth, is left on a life support machine following a boating accident. King is thrust into being more than, in his words, a back-up parent and takes control of the parenting of two wayward children, 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17 year old Alex (Shailene Woodley). King is right to doubt his ability to look after them and the signs are not promising that he is able to cope.
A key element of the film is King’s relationship with his eldest daughter Alex. He goes to her very expensive private school to tell her about her mother being in hospital only to find that his very expensive fees have cost him more than a private education. She very publicly humiliates and berates him for being a hopeless father. It is a great performance from this young actress and she demonstrates an extraordinary ability to be both foul and endearing at the same time.
Woodley’s performance is mesmerising. Her depiction of being an angry teenager with verbal ammunition known to any parent strikes true, and painfully for King, to the heart. She is feisty and idealist and drags her father to the realities of her mother’s true self and life choices that have resulted in a marriage of convenience and not of love. She, more than him, knows what type of marriage he had and she, more than him, knows what kind of mother she had. But their relationship develops throughout the film and brings them closer together.
The scene where King tells his daughter Alex that her mother is dying and will not recover from her coma demonstrates the skill of Payne as a director at his best. She is swimming in a dank and leaf infested pool that has not been cleaned in ages whilst hurling insults at her father. He finally interrupts the insults to let her know the truth and she is plunged into despair and sinks to the bottom of the pool and lets out a scream that is audible despite being underwater. It’s a very powerful image, brilliantly filmed.
The story develops as King and his daughters, accompanied by Alex’s surfer dude boyfriend (Nick Krause), try to visit those people on the island who would have known Elizabeth and have one last chance to say their goodbyes before the life support machine is switched off.
The opportunity to say goodbye to Elizabeth is not lost on anyone and the funniest parts of the film are the home truths unleashed at her lying on her hospital bed unable to respond. But it’s the wife of the lover (Judy Greer) who steals the show with a bedside manner that is as funny as it is sad.
Throughout the film Payne uses traditional Hawaiian music to reinforce the traditions and historical legacy inherited by King and his family members. They are as dysfunctional and normal as the rest of us, but the sepia pictures on the walls of families and partners seemingly at one and in love extolling the virtues of this tropical paradise shape the viewers’ response. We are all descendants of somewhere and just because they have entrusted us with their heritage makes it no easier to cope with our present. The lives Payne portrays in this excellent film may be dysfunctional but they ring true and I do not think the ancestors would be too disappointed with the final decision King has to make.
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