If you are ever lucky enough to visit Hawaii, once you disembark the airplane you realize you are in a special place. The air is heavier and warm and the pace of day to day life is slower. The beauty of Hawaii is beyond anyone’s first expectations, even in the bustling island of Oahu it is evident that you are in paradise.
The Descendants, a film written and directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways), is a story of one family linked to the islands through family ancestry. This modern family is in the midst of a tragedy: their mother and wife is in a coma due to a serious boating accident. Matt King (George Clooney), family patriarch and bewildered parent, is thrust into being a real parent to his two daughters for the first time. Just getting by day to day with this unexpected responsibility has Matt put off kilter. Scottie (Amara Miller) is ten and precocious beyond belief. Her prepubescent language and actions bewilder Matt, and keep him wondering “Where did she learn that?” Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is Matt’s out-of-control teenager holding a big secret about her mother. This secret, once revealed, set’s Matt, his daughters and Alexandra’s friend Sid (Nick Krause) on a comic adventure in the midst of tragic events.
Complicating matters is a family land deal in the making. Matt is the sole trustee of a large parcel of land on the island of Kauai. The trust is set to dissolve in seven years, and his large extended family is ready to sell the land to developers and cash out their last family connection to Hawaii. Most of the decisions have been made, but it is Matt who must make the final decision and is grappling with money hungry cousins, a vision of his family’s land being changed forever and the hope that his actions would please his family that came before him.
In the end, Matt becomes the man he thought he already was. He relies on this own judgment to decide the fate of his family’s land – even if it is unpopular one. And through a time of great loss and greif with his daughters, he realizes that it is just being there every day, participating in their lives together that brings him closer to them.
Filmmaker Alexander Payne is known for the details, and with The Descendants it is evident that he hasn’t lost his touch. Payne’s well-crafted dialogue along with a plot that is meticulous and purposeful reminds you why you enjoy going to the movies. The Descendants is a fine example of a film that entertains, makes you laugh, may make you cry and expresses a sense of real life. George Clooney is at the top of his game portraying a father on the brink. It’s one of his best performance to date and most likely will garner him an Academy Award nomination. Shailene Woodley as the teenage daughter is wonderful to watch with Clooney. Her performance makes Clooney’s performance look even better. Newcomer, Amara Miller, acts as if she has been acting for a million years. But, unbelievably this is her first performance in anything – including school plays. For a first time acting gig, she is a girl to watch for in the future.
Payne casted incredible actors for the remaining roles. Beau Bridges is charming and yet forceful as the imposing cousin. Nick Krause is funny and surprisingly sweet as Sid, and Judy Greer plays a pivotal role as Julie Speer. She portrays love, hate and forgiveness all in one moment to perfection and proves she is more than just a funny girl sidekick.
Overall, The Descendants is one of the best films of the year. It’s a must see and should be on every film lovers movie list. It’s a piece of paradise playing at your local movie theater.
For Oscar buffs, here is my take:
Most likely nominations:
Best Editing – Kevin Tent
Best Director – Alexander Payne
Best Adapted Screenplay – Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Best Actor – George Clooney
Outside Chance for Nomination:
Best Supporting Actress – Shailene Woodley
The Descendants is rated R for language including some sexual reference and has a runtime of 1 hour and 55 minutes.
TAKE A MOMENT TO WATCH THE TRAILER AND VIEW THE SLIDESHOW FROM THE FILM AT THE LEFT OF THIS ARTICLE.
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Whatever your movie choice this week, please remember your movie theater etiquette: silence your cell phones & no texting, please don’t talk during the film and remove your children if they become a distraction to other audience members. Don’t forget that laughing, crying and cheering are always approved behavior and even encouraged.
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-Kay Shackleton is a film historian with special focus on Silent Films, see her work on SilentHollywood.com