The last quarter of the year is my favorite film season, as I suspect is the case with most avid filmgoers. It’s when we get the bulk of the Oscar contenders, festival favorites, and under the radar limited releases in bulk quantities with a new “good” movie (or two, or three) slipped into a theatrical run each and every weekend. I love it, of course, but I’ll let you in on a secret: this is also a season boasting a surplus of bland yet “solid” films, and writing half-positive review after half-positive review for something you like, but don’t love, can become fantastically tedious. My J. Edgar rehashing was tepid at best, and when I went to see The Descendants the day after that viewing, I was worried I might be stacking my non-profit workload with writings I’d have to force myself to push through in the name of self-discipline (and a mildly OCD penchant for completion). After all, it wasn’t too long ago I found myself writing a rather underwhelmed review on Ides of March, I hadn’t been Up in the Air’s biggest fan, and there was a strong possibility that Alexander Payne’s The Descendants would be just another in a run of sad sack stories disguised as mildly comedic slices of life.
Alright, so I’d be lying to you if I didn’t admit that yes, The Descendants does indeed carry its fair share of sorrows, but otherwise I’m happy to report that as Oscar-bait family dramas go: this one is decidedly fresh, entertaining, and rather lovely. The Descendants is yet another literary adaptation, its origins pointed to in the deft juggling of multiple storylines and the terrific depth of understanding its actors seem to possess of their assorted characters. The film tells the story of Matt King (Clooney). Matt self-identifies as “the back-up parent” to his two daughters, and, before we get a chance to judge him, we find him admitting to his comatose wife that he knows he hasn’t been as attentive as he should be. Matt is trying to cope, but he’s also trying to hold together all the drifting pieces of his life. His youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is a precocious, difficult 10-year old with an attitude. He doesn’t understand her at all, and when he retrieves 17-year old Alex (Shailene Woodley) from boarding school, we wonder at first if her rebellious, rehabbed ways will calm the fires or douse them with gasoline. As an additional distraction, Matt is balancing the personal with the highly public: his family has lived in Hawaii for generations and the titular descendants have passed down a massive quantity of untouched island real estate, which Matt’s veritable tribe of cousins have put him in charge of selling off. The decision to or not to sell, or, who to sell to, is one rattled about as front page local news and one that could potentially effect the natural course of island life. The sale could easily take the forefront in an entirely separate film, but here is treated with the uneasiness of distraction. It’s one more nagging burden upon Matt’s shoulders, and we feel for him.
Oh, by the way? That comatose wife thing? Not a spoiler. There are a few things you should know going in and the first is undoubtedly that this is a movie revolving largely around the fact that Matt King’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) will not be waking up. In many ways, The Descendants is about dealing with death before the physical act of dying occurs. In a beautifully acted moment of poor parenting, Matt confides with his angry daughter Alex that the doctors will be pulling the plug. Of course, he doesn’t brace her for this, sit her down, or drape her in some sort of fatherly embrace, but instead tells her while she’s floating around the pool between cell phone conversations. Clooney puts in a tremendously understated performance here, shedding much of his debonair bravado and charming smugness to become a harried, hapless parent. This moment is quietly devastating, as so many in the film are. We can see that Matt is frantic, that he wants to share this news, that he’s frustrated by Alex’s actions and yet desperately needs her to be in this with him; we can also see what this means for Alex and trace back, lightly, through the assumed tactical errors he’s likely to have made in the past.
The Descendants is equal parts coming of age and coming to terms, splitting its focus amongst the members of the King family. The fractured pieces are the stuff of melodrama and prime time soap operas: dying mother, single father, troubled teen, extramarital affairs, a sneaky dose of hidden wealth. Yet, in Payne’s hands, they seem anything but. The situation unfolds in unexpected ways. Father and eldest daughter team up, slowly becoming closer and closer in a colluded effort to close up Elizabeth’s unfinished business. They embark on a quest, of sorts, for something intangible which only they (and perhaps Alex’s dimwitted dude friend Sid) know the motives behind. On one day it’s revenge. On another, redemption. Sometimes it’s selfless closure, other times it’s selfish rage. Shailene Woodley is impressive here, tapping into a depth of uncertain angst and that perfectly complements Clooney’s flailing eagerness to please. Together they mark just one set of the film’s emotional contradictions, and the way the characters interact and intertwine with each other separates the film from dozens of others in its vein. While I can’t be sure the film reaches the heights of the “instant classic” some are hyping it as, The Descendants is a rich, human tragicomedy as endearingly funny as it is profoundly melancholy. See it. Expect it to devastating in a way that’s somehow inevitable, and then allow yourself to savor the natural way the film’s humor arises from the emotional lows.