The Descendants (2011) Director: Alexander Payne
“My family always feels exactly like an archipelago; all part of the same whole but still separate and alone and always drifting slowly apart.”
Directed by Alexander Payne of About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004) fame, The Descendants is a sobering, bittersweet comedy about coping with grief and inheritance. It is based on a 2007 novel of the same name by Hawaiian writer Kaui Hart Hemmings (daughter of a famous surfer and politician). George Clooney plays Matt King, a frugal attorney in Hawaii who is the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of pristine land in Kauai. The land is inherited from his ancestors, but now Matt and his cousins are considering selling the land for many millions of dollars despite the ire of the local Hawaiian people. His wife is currently in a coma on life support following a terrible accident. We hear all of this through Clooney’s narration coupled with patient, ground-level cinematography of ordinary life in Hawaii. I thought the aesthetic for this movie could not have been better, offering us a new twist on our perception of paradise.
As the plot unfolds we learn more about Matt’s wife –she was a wild, gregarious woman who was actually cheating on her husband with a realtor connected to the large land deal. Matt was always too buried in his legal practice as his marriage began to collapse, and his two daughters drifted apart: Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alex (Shailene Woodley). Throughout the film we see how different people handle their grief, from friends to family, against the backdrop of a beautiful acoustic Hawaiian score. At the last moment Matt decides to find a way to keep his inherited land protected and in the end he grows closer to his daughters along with confronting his wife’s lover. However, it is anything but a cliché predictable ending.
I thought this was a deeply powerful, emotionally gripping film –each character possesses tremendous depth, including impressively subtle performances secondary characters played by Nick Krause, Judy Greer, and Matthew Lillard. It is a film about complex decision-making and the struggle to carve out the right path, as well as the ways in which we all carry a burden of love and loss in this life. The Descendants received a load of well-deserved Academy Award nominations including Best Actor (Clooney), Best Director (Payne), and Best Picture.