Title: The Descendants
Directed By: Alexander Payne
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer
There are two types of tearjerkers, the kind that merely tug on the typical heartstrings using formulaic tactics and the kind that earn the emotional reaction not by resorting to methods that guarantee watery eyes, rather by creating a situation that’s endearing simply because it feels real. The Descendants treats its tender subject matter with the utmost care and while the result may be a sadness that’s tough to shake, the film also offers a stirring degree of hope, leaving you with something The Descendants prides itself on from beginning to end, the power to see the best even in the worst of times.
To most, Hawaii is simply vacation bliss, somewhat along the lines of Disney World; it’s immune to real life problems. Well, that most certainly is not the case and The Descendants‘ opening scenes and Matt King’s (George Clooney) voiceover prove it. We meet Matt after his wife has a horrific jet ski accident that leaves her in a coma. Hopeful her condition will improve, Matt goes about his business as best he can which now includes taking care of their 10-year-old daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller). However, when his wife’s health takes a turn for the worse, Matt’s got to make some life changing decision both for himself and his daughters all while under the pressure of a King family situation, the responsibility of deciding what to do with a priceless piece of land handed down through their royal Hawaiian heritage.
In need of a confidant, Matt picks up his older daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), from school, but, even when she sheds a bit of her rebellious attitude, things continue to intensify, as she has no choice but to break some bad news; her mother was cheating on Matt. Now, while preparing for his wife’s departure, Matt takes on the task of hunting down her lover, taking Alexandra, Scottie and Alexandra’s surfer dude boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), along for the ride.
Weird synopsis, isn’t it? It sounds like a devastating family drama, but, at the same time, a bumbling road trip comedy, too, right? Well, that’s the beauty of The Descendants; it’s got the emotion and charm to make you laugh and cry at the same time, which primarily stems from impeccably real characters.
Matt earns your sympathy right from the start courtesy of an amusing and surprisingly sensible monologue voiceover that puts things into context; despite the beautiful backdrop, tragedy can strike in Hawaii. From there, the attention narrows to his situation. He’s a kind-hearted guy who’s gotten a bit too enraptured in his work to be the father he should be, but he most certainly means well. Tack on the super cute and sassy Scottie, and you’re instantly rooting for the King family, something that makes the delivery of the devastating news all the more troubling.
But, before the dreary subject matter can ruin the film’s zest, we meet Alexandra who breathes a great deal of life into their situation courtesy of her foul mouth, rebellious attitude and incredibly awkward shoulder to lean on, Sid. Once the gang assembles, The Descendants takes on a road trip movie-type form, putting the group dynamic at the center. George Clooney chaperoning a peppy pre-teen, a young adult with a spicy personality and a stoner? The thought itself is endlessly amusing.
However, that’s not to say that we’re watching George Clooney playing Matt King in The Descendants. Clooney is a unique breed of superstar. Once an actor or actress has reached a certain level of stardom, even if he or she is capable of delivering a convincing performance, it can still be tough to separate that celebrity from the character. Yes, it does take a quick moment to readjust to the Matt King version of Clooney, but once you’re fully entrenched in the plot, all traces of the mega-actor are vanquished and he’s simply a loving father in a tough situation.
Making Clooney’s performance even stronger is his stellar supporting cast, particularly the younger ones of the bunch. In her feature film debut, little Amara Miller shows off her impressive range, being able to go from the cute kid rattling off attempts to act beyond her years to an actual child suffering from the loss of her mother. At first, Krause’s Sid does come across as the cliché surfer dude, but, just before his irritating manner transcends the screen and quite literally becomes annoying, Sid starts to shed his layers and prove he really does have value. While both Miller and Krause make for stellar supporting cast members, it’s Woodley who comes quite close to snagging that spotlight from Clooney. Alexandra herself is a wildly entertaining character to watch, as she’s comprised of both honest affection and respect for her family but also a hefty dose of young adult irrationality. Then, Woodley takes the character a major leap further, showing off an incredible degree of chemistry with her co-cast that instantly sells the relationships, thus creating a large amount of the film’s emotional power.
While their roles may be rather minimal, Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer deserve credit, both stepping out of the comedic zone to tackle some far more dramatic material and succeeding immensely. Greer in particular manages to pull off one of the film’s most heart wrenching scenes while still infusing the slightest bit of humor, resulting in a moment that’s overwhelmingly rousing.
The praise can go on and on, but at this point, it’s quite clear, Alexander Payne has done it again. Beyond the film’s one snag, the somewhat subpar telling of Matt’s decision of whether or not to sell his family’s land, the writer-director-producer exhibits such a vast understanding of his story, the characters and, most importantly, the family dynamic, that the Kings become people you really feel that you know. Throw the gang into a plot that’s oozing with emotion and heartbreak with the perfect dose of comedy and we get a feature film that’s tremendously touching.