Introduction

The Descendants

The Descendants
 

The Descendants is a gently bittersweet comedy drama from ALEXANDER PAYNE (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways). ‘Another blissful slice of Americana that confirms Payne as the finest chronicler of human foibles working in US movies,’ wrote Mike Goodridge in Screen International. ‘Both hilariously funny and heartbreakingly sad, it’s a beautifully observed movie.’ Set in Hawaii, it charts the fallout from a speedboat accident that has left a woman in a coma. GEORGE CLOONEY stars as the woman’s husband in what several critics have called his best ever performance. Clooney, Payne and the film itself are on most lists of Oscar favourites.

Clooney’s character, Matt King, has always been “the back-up parent” but after his wife’s accident he has to assume full responsibility for his two daughters. They are both, in their own different ways, very troubled. His younger daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), reacts to the accident by showing her classmates photographs of her unconscious mother wreathed in hospital tubes. And when they go to fetch 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) from her boarding school they are confronted by a drunken girl shouting obscenities on the beach late at night.

His wife’s condition means the family’s future is very uncertain but Matt is plunged into further emotional turmoil by the revelation that she had been having an affair.

Matt is also trustee of his ancestors’ bequest of 25,000 acres of pristine land on the island of Kauai that his cousins want to sell to developers. The Descendants is deeply rooted in its Hawaiian setting and Matt and the girls travel to Kauai as they come to terms with their situation and try to re-build their family. As with all Payne films, what unfolds ‘isn’t just a story but a journey, a road movie of the soul’ (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly).

The film’s natural feel and lifelike quality are personified by Miller, who was cast as Scottie despite having had no previous acting experience. Payne had seen more than 300 girls when he selected the then-nine-year-old on the basis of a taped audition she submitted by email.

The movie is based on a 2009 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, who makes a brief appearance in the film as Matt’s secretary.

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The Descendants

PASSING ON

'In most movies the characters are locked into the machinery of narrative like theme park customers strapped into a roller coaster. Their ups and downs are as predetermined as their shrieks of terror and sighs of relief, and the audience goes along for the ride. But the people in this movie seem to move freely within it, making choices and mistakes and aware, at every turn, that things could be different.'

(AO SCOTT, THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Director Alexander Payne likes his leading men ill at ease, at least to begin with. The main character here, Matt King – “an understudy”, as he describes himself – is duly put upon. He is not only pressured by his cousins and betrayed by his wife but scorned by his daughters too. “It's like you don't respect authority,” he protests to them, as he belatedly realises it.  

Clooney's clowning

George Clooney, who was turned down for Paul Giamatti's role in Sideways because Payne was looking for someone less well known, finally gets to be a quintessential Payne male lead, neither hero nor anti-hero.

‘His smile has always semaphored a knowing indulgence for life’s ridiculous aspects, and he instantly slips under the skin and into the Hawaiian couture of Matt’ (Richard Corliss, Time Magazine). Bedecked in a garish, suitably undignified shirt, Clooney performs a galloping shuffle in flip-flops, like a large, flightless bird, when Matt’s wife's infidelity is revealed.

Newcomer Shailene Woodley has been praised, too, for her portrayal of defiant teenager Alexandra and her transformation into a young adult. For Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly she is ‘such a sharp, beguiling presence that she seems to wash away the residue of a thousand bogus movie adolescents’. Christopher Tookey, writing in the Daily Mail, tipped her as a certain Best Supporting Actress nominee.

Meanwhile Amara Miller, playing her young sister Scottie, ‘pulls off a mix of anger and innocence’, according to Betsy Sharkey of the Los Angeles Times. In fact Payne has established a network of supporting characters with weight and complexity, so we feel the pressures they experience. Sid, for example, Alexandra’s seemingly spaced-out friend, is called on for light relief but is not as simple as he seems. And Beau Bridges, playing cousin Hugh, who is counting on the land deal going through, ‘is reluctant to be the bad guy, but not unwilling’ (Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times).

Paradise mortgaged

Hawaii’s beaches make a refreshingly unlikely backdrop for this story, a mismatch that Matt acknowledges in his disenchanted introduction: "Paradise can go f*** itself."

The Hawaii we observe is not the one that’s presented to tourists. The only hula dancer we see is a little doll swinging her plastic-skirted hips on a car dashboard, Joe Morgenstern pointed out in The Wall Street Journal. The soundtrack, too, is authentically Hawaiian – ‘songs of extraordinary sweetness, joy and soulfulness that bear little or no resemblance to the stuff that’s commonly strummed on ukuleles’.

Payne-fully funny

Payne gleefully goes about exploiting this juxtaposition of paradise and pain, life and loss. His script, co-written with Nat Faxon and Jim Rush, often combines contrasting aspects in quick succession. ‘What’s comical at one moment may suddenly morph into something rueful, farcical, piercingly painful or inexplicably graceful’ (Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal).

These various elements are melded convincingly. Payne ‘somehow achieves the emotional impact of good melodrama and the hectic absurdity of classic farce without ever seeming to exaggerate… every moment of the movie feels utterly and unaffectedly true’ (AO Scott, The New York Times).

The Descendants ‘flows with a life of its own that’s a good approximation of what we know as real life’ (Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal). As such, ‘what happens to Matt, Scottie and Alex is just a thread in a tapestry of incidents and relationships that has no real end’ (A. O. Scott, The New York Times). The final scene, in which the family watch a TV programme about penguins in Antarctica, ‘becomes an oblique comment on the theme of family and survival over long reaches of time’ (Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal).

 

 
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The Descendants

 
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The Descendants

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