Review first published 28/01/2012
Matt King is a property lawyer who lives on one of the islands of Hawaii. Due to a piece of good fortune in his family tree, Matt is the trustee of 25,000 acres of land that he is looking to sell on behalf of his family for a major profit.
However, whilst all this is going on, Matt’s wife suffers a major brain injury in a boating accident and he has to take on the responsibility of being the sole parent to his daughters – Scottie, who is having the early blooming of youthful rebellion, and Alexandra, whose life has revolved around arguing with her mother, dating older men, alcohol and drugs.
He also has to face the ghosts of his past as he finds out that his wife may not have been as faithful to him as he thought her to be.
I saw Alexander Payne’s earlier directorial film, the Oscar winning “Sideways”, a few years ago. Whilst I liked the sharp humour in it, it didn’t blow me away.
“The Descendants” raises the bar on that film substantially and it’s worthy of the multiple nominations and awards that it’s been garnering.
George Clooney is given the opportunity to display some serious acting chops in the role of Matt and play a character that is a polar opposite to the ones for which he’s become trademarked with. Matt has no control in his life – he has doubts about his parenting skills due to the fact that his daughters appear to be going off the rails, the majority of his cousins are railroading him to sell his family property, and his wife is on a ventilator… and all that comes before the bombshell when he finds out that his wife is cheating on him.
Clooney manages to convince by underplaying the role and avoiding going down the obvious route of going into hysterics as the plot goes on.
His three main co-stars are also perfectly cast – Amara Miller as the younger daughter Scottie portrays a character who is caught between being a child and an alarmingly early onset of teenage rebellion, Shailene Woodley who portrays the older daughter Alexandra whose role starts as being a pain in the family’s collective backside and grows to be her father’s main figure of support in the family’s various crises, and Nick Krause in the role of Alexandra’s stoner boyfriend Sid who is part comic relief and part “wise man” to Matt.
Woodley, in particular, impresses with a mature performance as she has to, in effect, be George Clooney’s main co-star. Hopefully, she will be given the opportunity to work with further well written material such as in this film.
The script, based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, is well paced and keeps several plotlines flowing without confusing the audience, is funny without being over the top and has the room to be sad without being sugary or morbid. It contains believable characters – not just in Matt’s dysfunctional immediate family, but also the friends who think that Matt’s wife is strong and will pull through (this is echoed quite a bit in the script) or the family “hangers on” who want Matt to make them a quick buck.
If you haven’t had the chance to see this dramedy, I urge you to try to catch it at the cinema or home viewing. It has great acting, a wickedly smart script and direction which is both keeps the plot moving and allows the film room to breathe.