I’ll admit that “The Descendants” was near the bottom of my “to watch” list until it won the Best Drama Golden Globe last Sunday. There’s nothing about it that immediately stands out, nothing particularly interesting or distinctive about the premise aside from the fact that it takes place in Hawaii. The marketing really didn’t give me much to go on, and I hadn’t seen any of the trailers. I was expecting a pretty typical dysfunctional family drama, hopefully with a decent performance by George Clooney and better production values than the typical indie could afford. Boy did I underestimate this movie.
At the center of "The Descendants" is an awful situation. A woman named Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) is in a coma after a boating accident, and her husband Matt (George Clooney) has to deal with the fallout, particularly the impact on their two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). Matt is not a great father. He’s a workaholic lawyer who is in the middle of a major real estate deal to sell off the last remaining undeveloped Hawaiian land that the family has inherited. But as the situation worsens, and certain truths about Elizabeth emerge, Matt is forced to confront a lot of uncomfortable issues he’s avoided for too long.
This is not exactly obvious material for your typical comedy, or even your typical dramedy, which is what "The Descendants" is better categorized as. The themes are dead serious and there are only a few brief scenes that you can point to where the film is obviously trying to be funny. And yet there are so many moments that made me smile, from Robert Forster’s appearance as the pugnacious grandfather to the thick-headedness of Alexandra’s friend Sid (Nick Krause),who tags along everywhere for moral support. The film manages to find the right tone that allows it to be uncomfortable and touching and downright funny in just about the right proportions, without ever getting flippant, mushy, or heavy-handed.
Director Alexander Payne, best known for the similarly heartfelt, but unsentimental comedies "Sideways" and "About Schmidt," is firing on all cylinders here. He gets a lot of mileage out of the story’s Hawaiian setting, contrasting the characters’ misery and cynicism with the verdant paradise of their surroundings. The soundtrack heavily features Hawaiian music, which gently brings out the lighter, funnier side of the most awkward situations. And conversely, when the sad moments come, they’re handled delicately, with admirable care and distance. The script by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash is so well written, and the character interactions come across as so true to life, you often won’t notice the obvious artifice of the plot unless you’re looking for it.
The performances are the heart of the film, though, and they’re superb. I will have absolutely no complaints if George Clooney goes home with an Oscar this year for playing Matt King, who is constantly navigating difficult emotional waters and juggling a lot of personal baggage. His is a voyage of tumultuous, uneasy self-discovery, and it’s a very satisfying one to watch. Shailene Woodley also leaves a great impression as his troubled, but tough-as-nails teenage daughter without being too showy or obvious. These two do some of the best onscreen parent-child bonding I’ve seen for a long time, and it goes almost totally unacknowledged through the whole movie. How great is that? And then you have Robert Forster and Nick Krause and Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard and Beau Bridges, all in smaller parts that aren’t what they seem at first glance. Some of the film’s most poignant and memorable scenes come courtesy of these actors.
So "The Descendants" is a film about loss and grief and a screwed up family that is actually a great watch, very cathartic and life-affirming while not falling into the traps that movies like this too often fall into. It really caught me off guard, though after so much good work by Alexander Payne I really should have caught on to his facility with these types of stories by now. I’m so used to seeing movies about tragedy handled like, well, Greek tragedies, when I suspect that the reality is much closer to what we see in "The Descendants," where the emotions are a lot more messy and complicated.
So thank you Golden Globes, for giving this film the attention it deserves and putting it directly in my sights. I’m glad I saw "The Descendants" sooner rather than later.