Everyone deals with grief in different ways, and this is particularly evident in director Alexander Payne’s simultaneously amusing and heart-breaking drama, “The Descendants”. When his wife Elizabeth is in a boating accident with a very small chance of coming out of her coma, Matt King (George Clooney) tries to establish the same rapport with his daughters that his wife had, while also trying to sell a large chunk of the property belonging to his ancestors in his Hawaiian home.
Matt has two daughters: ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and seventeen-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Wooley), who Matt pulls out of school and brings home to help him tell their friends and family that Elizabeth is going to die. Both girls have rather shocking reactions to their mom’s condition: Amara takes pictures of her lying in her hospital bed for her photography project, while Alexandra is angry and at first doesn’t seem to care. But when Alex reveals to Matt that Elizabeth was having an affair, even he starts to do some strange things, as he tries to track down the man she was going to leave him for.
“The Descendants” works on so many levels. It is the story of an obviously dysfunctional family, and their antics are always on the verge of hilarity, but Payne manages to keep the tone steady throughout so that the transition between the scenes of the family bickering (which is taken to the next level when Alex decides to bring her wacky friend Sid (Nick Krause) along when they visit their family) and the wife dying are never jarring. What is surprising, as mentioned before, is Matt’s daughters’ reactions to the situation. Odd and inappropriate though they may seem, the girls’ grief comes through in a few scenes that are truly saddening, proof that their behavior is merely a way of trying to ignore the fact that they are going to lose their mother.
Wooley and Miller play these girls to perfection. They are both profane and outspoken for their age (which often leads to some funny moments), and the chemistry they have between themselves and Clooney is unmistakable. They really make it feel as if we are peeking into the private affairs of a real family. Clooney deserves an Oscar nomination—possibly even an Oscar win—for his portrayal of a father who is trying to keep everything together while he is falling apart. You can feel his frustration as he tries to reconnect with his unruly daughters, his despair when he finds out his wife will die, and his anger and sadness when he discovers she cheated on him. Every emotion is perfectly clear, perfectly relatable, making this one of Clooney’s very best performances.
The film also makes use of the gorgeous Hawaiian landscape to show that even in paradise, tragedy strikes. Overall, while “The Descendants” follows the familiar formula of a family seeking to reconnect in times of crisis, it is a realistic portrait of grief with endearing characters who you love by the end of the film. And while the film is sad, it ends with a spark of hope that their loss will make this family stronger and will pull them together rather than apart. When dealing with grief, that’s often all you can hope the outcome will be.
Runtime: 115 minutes. Rated R for language and some sexual references.
Check out showtimes for this movie and more at the following St. Louis-area theaters:
- Wehrenberg Theatres
- AMC Theatres
- Regal Movie Theatres
- Galleria 6
- Chase Park Plaza
- Granite City
- Moolah Theatre
- Hi-Pointe Theatre
- St. Andrews Cinema
- Plaza Frontenac Cinema
- Tivoli Theatre
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