Written by: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer
Second chances in life do not come guaranteed, which makes those times when there are ones instances to cherish. The Descendants opens with a plea for one that does not get granted, which forces a man to acknowledge his mistakes and the impact made by the decisions he has made in life. Through this wonderful reflection and meditation about these struggles, this film takes us through a family’s difficult time only to bring them closer because of it.
As the sole trustee of a sought-after piece of land on Kauai, Matt King (George Clooney) must deal with the aftermath of his wife’s boating accident, which has left her on the verge of death. With trying to deal with the monumental sale of this land and the next steps for his wife, Matt must reconnect with his family in a way he has never done before.
The key to finding enjoyment in The Descendants comes squarely with how an audience member feels about the character of Matt. Certainly an imperfect man, who has messed up in cultivating proper relationships with anyone and continues to mess up throughout the film. He’s unassuming as he drives a Honda Accord even with inheriting a large amount of money from his father. Matt does not live above his means, which makes the sale of this land such a sticking point, as his broke cousins desperately need the money the transaction would provide. He never has the right thing to say because rarely did he have the inclination but this film forces him to confront his mistakes and pushes him to build a better future.
Hawaii has been labeled a paradise as a plethora of people make their way to the islands for vacations all year, but this label does not mean the same thing to the locals. The opening of the film makes it explicitly clear by showing that the weather and beaches may be majestic, but the issues in any other state get felt in this one. They also pay taxes, sit through traffic, and deal with the same heartaches as anyone else. It truly sets the stage for this deeply human and tragic story set to unfold.
On two levels, The Descendants operates with both the story of Matt trying to fix his nuclear family with his wife’s condition and the sale of this property. Each of them has distinct segments in the film, but they each inform the larger struggle happening with Matt, as this proves to be a tumultuous time in his life. One day things were normal and then he finds himself with his wife in a coma, which brings everything back into perspective. For the first time in years, he must now care for his young daughter Scottie (Amara Miller), and take responsibility for his older teenager Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). Their initial scenes display what the film has led up to, which shows Matt has not been the best father and he has some making up to do in order to prepare his daughters for the inevitability of what will occur with their mother. A tough task for someone who proved to be emotionally closed off for quite a while.
The real wrench in the story comes in with some revelations made about what Matt’s wife did during her final years on this Earth that he must now reckon with. As the film progresses we learn more about what she has done without getting her side of the story, as she lays unconscious. A tricky feat for the screenplay to present but it puts the audience at the same emotional level as Matt as he begins to discover he did not know his wife as well as he thought he did. We begin to learn these things along with him as the full picture of who his wife actually was begins to come together.
As an actor, George Clooney seems to always slip under the radar for those getting all the praise. He’s more seen as the good-looking guy who hops in here and there to look dreamy once again, but his acting chops are simply delightful to see when given the right material. With the role of Matt, he plays a fairly dorky man, who cannot be taken too seriously when he feverishly runs in his flip flops to confront people. Clooney works perfectly for this role because he sells the cool and calm side of this character, while also displaying the moments where he could lose his temper. The information and self-realization he receives will certainly contribute to this feeling. Clooney pairs up so well with Shailene Woodley as she portrays his rebellious teen daughter. Woodley works at her finest with this character, as she captures the grief of the severed relationship Alexandra had with her mother and the reasons why. A tragic circumstance no one should ever face. Alexandra stands as the motivator and catalyst for many of the decisions Matt makes and their bonding after years of emotional neglect works wonders for the beauty of this film.
With it taking place in Hawaii, this film expands the typical Midwestern landscape Payne utilizes with most of his other movies. Just like in every other, the location plays a major part in telling the story. He demonstrates the relaxed nature of the people of this state and just how ridiculous people can look with their shirts, shorts, and flip flops. The screenplay utilizes plenty of voice-over to an effective degree to show no confusion of this being Matt’s story. Additionally, it smartly addresses the privilege he has in being the trustee to this land about to be sold off. Even as a native Hawaiin, Matt’s privilege allows him to be in the position to make hundreds of millions from land inherited from his family. Noticing this provides reflection as well, which Payne smartly installed into the story to show the complete growth of this man.
Tragedy strikes for this small family unit in The Descendants, but it teaches them a valuable lesson about living in the moment and loving the people you have. The monotony and boring nature of life can distract from this but you never know what can occur. Its beauty lies in the family dynamics and the way it plays with the emotional foundation of these characters as they must cling to each other in a way they never had to before. The environment contributes to creating a beautifully pleasant backdrop for this growth to occur, which certainly helps in fostering my love for everything this film has to offer. It shows Alexander Payne working at the height of his powers and demonstrating the adage of old dogs not being able to learn new tricks to be untrue.