Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Descendants

The Descendants is a beautiful, thoughtful, sad film. The story unfolds in Hawaii, but as the opening narration tells us, there’s trouble in paradise (“My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise, like a permanent vacation ... are they insane?”). The title has to do with inheritance; the characters in this film are those left behind, and they all carry the weight of what their ancestors (both immediate and distant) entrusted to them. The characters’ lives seem defined by these blessings and burdens that they didn’t ask for but must learn to cope with.

George Clooney plays Matt King, a middle-aged lawyer who is the sole trustee of a family trust that controls 25,000 acres of beautiful Hawaiian land. His struggle with who to sell the land to transpires alongside his personal struggles. Matt’s wife lies comatose after a near-fatal boating accident, leaving Matt with the responsibility of raising his two daughters: Scottie (Amara Miller), age 10 and Alex (Shailene Woodley), age 17. Long-repressed tensions rise to the surface between Matt and his wife, Matt and his girls, the girls and their mother, etc. Amidst jarring changes, Matt struggles to find balance for himself, his family, and the land he loves so much.

Writer/Director Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways) specializes in these funny/sad slices of American life. The Descendants leans more towards drama than comedy, with a few laughs punctuating what is otherwise a somber story, though it’s extremely well-told and occasionally profound. The Descendants successfully blends several thought-provoking ideas into a single narrative. The characters battle deeply with disappointment, with how to respond when you find yourself hurting or hurt by someone you love. It’s also about legacy: what we leave behind. When you think about how your decisions will positively or negatively shape the world for those who come after you, you start making different choices. In a season of crushing loss, these characters surprise each other and themselves with their decisions, and it’s all so fundamental and raw that we understand and empathize, even having never been exactly where they are.

Tight writing and nuanced performances kept me engaged, with George Clooney and Shailene Woodley doing the heavy lifting. Clooney’s acting here has earned considerable acclaim, but while I admire his mature, subtle performance, I don’t see it as career-defining or even as his best work. Days after seeing the film, Woodley’s performance is the one that has stuck with me and continued to resonate. She delivers all the complexity you would expect to find in a rebellious, somewhat-troubled 17-year-old. Folly lays alongside maturity and sweetness shines through angst, a testament to both Woodley’s performance and Payne’s writing.

My biggest criticism is that one of Alex’s friends, Sid, appears much too frequently and contributes far too little to the story. His character rings true, but I mostly just wanted him to get lost (this may have been the intention, but that didn’t make his presence more enjoyable). Most of the characters are so rich and believable, even the ones who only appear for a minute or two. The Descendants is a beautiful movie on several fronts (including its tropical Hawaiian setting) but most especially for its spot-on depiction of flawed people surviving a painful, heartbreaking experience.

Note: What follows is the spoiler-free teaser trailer, as I think the full-length trailer reveals a bit too much.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated R for language including some sexual references.

The Descendants has strong language throughout as well as disrespectful exchanges between children and adults. More than the language and heated exchanges, all of this movie’s themes (mainly loss and disappointment) are emotionally mature.

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