‘The Descendants’ Is A Poignant Drama

The 84th Academy Award nominations were announced last Tuesday, and “The Descendants” starring Oscar-winner George Clooney collected five, including the prestigious ones for best picture, best actor, and best director. Fortunately for all
Clooney fans in the area, the film is playing at the local cinemas, and although it would not get my vote for best picture (My choice in the category would be “The Artist.”), the movie definitely is worth seeing because it’s an intriguing character study of a man’s journey toward self-discovery.

The film is based upon the critically acclaimed first novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemming, and Clooney plays Matt King, a wealthy lawyer who lives on the island of Oahu in Hawaii with his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastle), and their two daughters, Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). Despite residing in paradise, however, Matt is not a happy man. When the film opens, he is sitting in a hospital room staring at comatose woman, and we find out what the situation is through a voiceover.

“This is Elizabeth Thorson King, my wife. Twenty-three days ago she was launched from a powerboat during a race and hit her head, almost drowned. When I heard about the accident and about the coma, I wasn’t even in town. I was on Maui on business. We hadn’t spoken in three days. In a way we hadn’t really spoken in months. If you’re doing this to get my attention, Liz, it’s working.  I’m ready now. I’m ready to talk. I’m ready to change. I’m ready to be a real husband and a real father. Just wake up. Please Liz, just wake up.”

As if his wife’s tenuous medical condition isn’t enough to deal with, Matt has no clue how to handle the rebellious 10-year-old Scottie, and 17-year-old Alexandra is at a boarding school on another island because she had some problems with drugs. And that’s still not the end of Matt’s woes.

In addition to his family problems, Matt has a huge decision hanging over his head. He is in sole control of a trust involving 25,000 acres of prime, pristine land in the islands. The property was originally the in the possession of a royal Hawaiian family and then some missionaries before coming into the hands of the Kings. Matt and his cousins stand to make a virtual fortune by selling the land to a company that wants to build resorts on it. But as the time for the sale draws near, Matt isn’t so sure he wants to part with the property.

Would you say the guy has problems? Well, we might as well add one more to the list. Shortly after he brings Alexandra home from school to see her mother, he learns that Elizabeth was having an affair before her accident. As Matt attempts to cope with all these conundrums, he’s forced to reexamine his life and make some very difficult decisions along the way.

Although a number of sources refer to “The Descendants” as a comedy, I think of it’s more a drama. That’s not to say, however, that it is completely devoid of humor. If you have seen the film’s trailer, you probably have watched Clooney’s clumsy gallop from his house to a friend’s place after learning of Elizabeth’s infidelity. There’s also Alexandra’s friend Sid (Nick Krause), whose brazen attitude injects some humorous moments into the film.

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a big fan of Clooney’s work because I think he simply reinvents Dr. Doug Ross from the “ER” television series for every part he plays on the big screen. This film is really no exception to that, but in all fairness, that character fits very well into this film. Matt is a person whose usually calm demeanor belies the tension raging inside him at times, and Clooney conveys this quite well. And on the occasions when he loses his temper, he’s also quite convincing.

Actually the acting in this film is excellent right across the board, but the one who steals the show is Woodley, who really makes the most of her first major role on the silver screen. Her portrayal of Alexandra is at once charming, funny, and piteous. When we first meet her, she is hurt and angry about the cards life has dealt her, but as the film progresses, we see her mature into young woman who finally has conquered most of her inner demons. In the film’s production notes, Woodley explained why she was so excited to be a part of the film and offered an analysis of her character.

“It’s a heart-wrenching journey about growth. I love how everybody in the story grows in their ability to love, grows in maturity, in figuring out their individuality and who they are as a family.

“She (Alexandra) starts out as a teenager who feels like a victim. To her, the reason why her life is horrible is because her dad did this and her mom did that. But during the course of the movie, she starts to realize that she’s responsible for her own happiness, and it isn’t up to her parents. It’s fun to watch her grow up in the moment. She’s always been a bit manipulative but now she’s doing it to help her dad fight his demons. I think she loves her dad, but she kind of looks at him as the childish one in their relationship, and she’s always felt like she needed to take on a parenting role with him. It’s only later that she learns to give him his own power as a father.”

 

“The Descendants” (Give it a score of eight.) offers first-rate entertainment and an intricate family portrait set against the backdrop of Hawaii’s breathtakingly beautiful and lush scenery. You will find yourselves drawn into the lives of the King family members, and by the time the film ends, you will feel as if you have shared their joys and sorrows with them. It turns out that Dr. Ross makes a pretty good lawyer.

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