It’s been seven years since writer-director Alexander Payne ran roughshod over awards season with his Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Award winning film Sideways. Now, he’s returned with another praiseworthy effort, the winningly emotional dramedy The Descendants.
Based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants flies us to modern-day Hawaii to introduce us to Matt King (George Clooney). Matt’s wife has just suffered a near-fatal boating accident and lies comatose in the hospital. This leaves Matt holding the bag with his two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). By his own admission, workaholic Matt hasn’t been the primary caregiver in the family. He’s just “the understudy,” as he puts it. With his wife sidelined, he’s at a loss about how to raise two young girls.
Matt’s backstory, peppered with interesting snippets of Hawaiian history, takes a few moments to get through. Clooney provides it all in a dense voice-over narration. (No hardship, of course, listening to Clooney’s rich voice.) Even in these early establishing scenes, though, we understand that it’s the tiny moments that will make this story work. Matt rambles on in his voice-over, trying to make sense of the chaos his life has suddenly become. The moment his detailed explanations of real estate law, land inheritance and trusteeships begin to sound long-winded, he stops. While the character stares, blank-eyed, into space on screen, the narration comes quietly back to life. “... She’ll be all right,” says Matt, assuring himself far more than us. Clearly, our main character has been talking nonstop in an attempt to prevent himself from dealing with the real issue—namely, his wife’s grave condition. It’s rare that you see that kind of attention paid to even the narration of a movie.
The Descendants is a delicate film. The story is tissue thin, spanning about three days and a small handful of crises. Too much drama, too much comedy and it would tear to pieces. But Payne and his expert crew proceed with utmost caution. It becomes obvious very quickly that Matt’s sunny prognostications are not to be. His wife isn’t going to wake up from her coma, and doctors are pushing to remove her from the life-sustaining machinery. Normally, this would be a time for mourning. But Matt is visited by a third great burden: the unexpected knowledge that his wife was having an affair and was planning on leaving him. Now he doesn’t know what to do with his emotions. While waiting for his spouse to pass away, Matt juggles his troubled daughters, his angry in-laws and his money-hungry cousins and embarks on an ill-advised quest to find the man with whom his wife was sleeping.
Under other circumstances and in other hands, The Descendants would be just another dysfunctional family dramedy. But Payne shapes the story into something much different. The King family has its problems. Obviously mom and dad had their secrets. Little Scottie is acting like an angry brat. And Alexandra is doing the typical rebellious teen thing. But The Descendants is a remarkably empathetic film. It doesn’t feel the need to pass judgment on these characters and provide them with one-note arcs that see them happy and healed by film’s end. Sometimes in life, you’re better off forgiving people, rather than trying to change them. The Descendants feels the same way.
Like Sideways and Payne’s previous efforts About Schmidt, Election and Citizen Ruth, The Descendants is a film about unhappy people flailing angrily, often indiscriminately, at the world around them. Unlike most of the characters in those previous films, however, our main protagonist here is a fundamentally nice guy. He’s been blessed with great family wealth, yet he works hard as a real estate attorney. He’s given his daughters “enough that they can do something, but not so much that they can do nothing.” And despite the shocking revelations, he still loves his wife. It’s not some innate flaw that makes these characters fail. It’s just basic human nature.
Clooney does his best, most nuanced work here since he hooked up with the Coen brothers (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?). Coasting on neither looks nor charm, Clooney creates a rawly emotional character that is melancholy but never morose, optimistic but never rose-colored. Giving him some more-than-able assist is Woodley, who plays his teenage daughter. She’s pretty much written herself a golden ticket in Hollywood with this confident breakthrough performance. Surly, foul-mouthed and immune to bullshit, Matt’s elder offspring proves to be the perfect sidekick on this funny, sad, messy, painful journey known as life.
The Descendants isn’t a big film. It’s an incredibly intimate one. Unlike a lot of recent indie dramas, though, it still feels significant. It goes somewhere. Things happen. Decisions matter. Emotions linger. It’s not hard to imagine the sort of award nominations this tough, tender character study will rack up over the next few months.