In the Family Way

film_descenClooney heads great cast in wry, touching ‘Descendants’

s we know here in Santa Cruz, no one is “immune to life”—not even in Paradise. This is well understood by Matt King, a Hawaiian-born lawyer and father on the island of Oahu facing a particularly thorny patch of life in The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s incisive, entertaining, tender and life-sized family drama. Shot on location in the luscious Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Kauai, it’s a tale of a family in crisis, a culture in flux, and the issue of legacy between the generations, told with wry humor and honest emotion.

Adapted by scriptwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, from the novel by Hawaiian author Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants revolves around the King family.

George Clooney once again proves himself one of the most watchable and subtle of actors in the role of beleaguered father Matt, who has evidently pursued a successful law career while neglecting his duties to his thrill-seeking wife, Elizabeth, and their two daughters. But he gets a big dose of payback when a boating accident lands Elizabeth in a coma in the hospital.

It’s up to Matt to pull the family together, even though he calls himself “the back-up parent, the understudy,” who has no idea even how to talk to his girls. Bright 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) is turning into a little troublemaker at school. Wayward 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, in a remarkable feature debut) has been shipped off to boarding school on the big island, but she’s still angry and contentious. When her exasperated dad tries to find out what’s wrong, she tells him their mother was cheating on him.

film_descendAt the same time, Matt and his extended family of King relatives are going through another kind of upheaval. Descended from a white missionary and a daughter from the last royal house of Hawaii, their family has lived in the islands for over a century. They are co-proprietors of a tract of pristine waterfront property on Kauai held in a family trust, for which lawyer Matt has become the sole Trustee. But according to the rule against perpetuities in Hawaiian law, they will have to disperse the property in seven more years, and several of Matt’s “broke” cousins are voting to sell it off to developers now and make a killing.

As Elizabeth’s prognosis worsens, Matt struggles to surf this minefield of moral dilemmas. He takes a reluctant Alex on the rounds of informing relatives that it’s time to come say goodbye to Elizabeth (accompanied by the goofball boyfriend, Sid (a funny Nick Krause) Alex has inserted into the family unit), where father and daughter unexpectedly begin to bond on a covert mission to find the guy his wife was sleeping with. There’s also a side trip to the breathtaking, unspoiled family property on Kauai, which helps Matt gain perspective on the concept of trust and the legacies parents leave their children.

The preview for The Descendants looks like one of those trailers that tells you every single turn of the plot. But don’t worry: everything in the trailer occurs in the first 15 minutes of the film. The rest of the story is yours to discover, unraveling at its own thoughtful pace as each character comes to grips with his or her personal sense of anger, guilt, forgiveness, loss, and/or reconciliation. The acting is terrific throughout, not only Clooney and the girls, but supporting players like Robert Forster as Elizabeth’s crusty, but doting father, who wantonly dishes out blame as a defense mechanism for coping with his own pain.

film_descendantsMost striking, however, may be the portrait of Hawaii itself, not only the dazzling paradise the tourists see, but the daily lives of the inhabitants. Payne deftly infuses the film with Hawaiian culture, from the beach attire everyone wears to the central issue of guardianship of the land itself, to the haunting slack-key guitar music that plays under every scene (performed by such legendary artists as Gabby Pahinui and The Sons of Hawaii). Payne knows how to let this setting, as well as the story’s emotions, resonate throughout, avoiding easy sentimentality and keeping things intimate, smart and achingly true to life.


★★★ (out of  four) Watch film trailer >>>

With George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, and Amara Miller. Written by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash. From the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Directed by Alexander Payne. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated R. 115 minutes.

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