Posted by: ckckred | December 10, 2011

The Descendants: The Sweet, Sad, Somber Song of Hawaii

I’ve been trying to see The Descendants for quite a while.  I was sick last, was away for Thanksgiving, and I think the week before the movie was still in limited release.  But now that I’ve seen it, I can say it was worth the wait.

The Descendants, which is Alexander Payne’s first film since 2004’s Sideways, is a story of love and forgiveness.  It’s a family drama, with a touch of comedy, so you could call it a dramedy.

The story is this: Matt King (George Clooney) is a descendant of the original white-settlers of Hawaii.  His family owns a trust of large area of virgin forest on Kauai, which will disappear from their hands in seven years.  Matt is left in charge of the land after his father’s death, and his cousins desperately want him to sell the land for the money.

But Matt is soon hit with family problems.  His wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is put into a coma after a boating accident.  Her will specifically states she doesn’t want to be on life support, so Matt has to get her family and relatives together to say their last goodbyes.  He is accompanied by his 16 year old daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), his 10 year old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller), and Alexandra’s boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), who at first glance seems like a character added for comic relief, but ends up being one of the strongest characters in the story.

But Matt discovers that his wife has been seeing another man, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), and he goes through stages of rage and anger.

Scott Thoson (Robert Forster), Matt’s father-in-law, blames Matt for Elizabeth’s death, and believes Elizabeth to have been a devoted house-wife.  When we first see Scott, we’re presumed to think he’s a grouchy old man.  But we soon discover that Scott’s wife has alzheimer’s, and that he’s just taking his rage on Matt because he’s saddened of Elizabeth’s death.  And because of this, Matt never ruin’s his personal fantasy.

But the main part of the story is Matt’s trip to find Brian Speer to tell him Elizabeth’s dying.      This journey takes us across Hawaii, and has us encounter Matt’s cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), who desperately wants Matt to sell the land.

Matt’s personal conflicts are the center of the story, and George Clooney manages to make it work.  His family keeps pushing him for decisions and blames him for mistakes he didn’t make, yet Matt pushes it on.  It takes a good actor to make this role believable, which Clooney does successfully.

The Descendants may be the best family drama in years.  It deals with Matt’s personal conflict with humor and drama, and gives the best performances of the year.  The movie is like a Hawaiian song that’s sweet and sad at the same time.


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