Director Alexander Payne has made a strong career out of putting beautifully ordinary characters in painfully extraordinary situations, and his latest film, ‘The Descendants’, is no different. Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer living on one of the Hawaiian islands, is trying to keep his family together after his wife Elizabeth falls into a coma from a boating accident. With little chance of her recovering, Matt has to juggle telling his friends and family, with protecting his two daughters Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). Just when things couldn’t get any worse, Matt is hit by a revelation about his wife that throws his entire world into a tailspin.
George Clooney has always suffered from having his charming good looks overshadow his immense talent as an actor, and his performance in ‘The Descendants’ is further proof of his ability to command the screen. This is far from the usual dashing Clooney we’re used to - he is dorky, uncoordinated and wonderfully middle-aged. The wear and tear of Matt’s life is in every crevice of his face. There are moments where all he has to do is stop and stand, and let the weight of the character do the work. It seems like every year, he delivers a career-best performance, and after his spectacular turn in ‘Up in the Air’ (2009), I didn’t think he could top it. With Payne’s expert guidance, he has done just that.
Clooney is supported by a stellar supporting cast of relative unknowns, particularly Shailene Woodley as his feisty teenage daughter (and eventual partner-in-crime) Alex. Her antagonism and bluntness force her father to face the difficulties his quiet nature would rather ignore, and when he goes into the ring to fight, she is is greatest ally. Also of note are Amara Miller as his younger daughter Scottie, whose innocent and warped view of the world offer a fantastic counterpoint to the often heavy material, and Nick Krause as Alex’s beefcake blockhead friend Sid, whose overly laid-back attitude provides some of the films best comic moments.
'THE DESCENDANTS' TRAILER
However, the real star of this film is Hawaii itself. I’ve never seen the island chain shot like this before. Rather than showing it off as an island paradise, Payne refreshingly shows us the ordinary, suburban side of Hawaii, the everyday world the Kings inhabit. There are the occasional shots of picturesque beaches and mountains, but the flavour and texture of the location seeps from every frame. As Matt’s world crumbles around him, the ordinariness of his world keeps him grounded and real.
As is typical of the heavy material Payne chooses to work with, it’s not all doom and gloom. His trademark quirk and sense of humour (akin to less frenetic Wes Anderson) is wonderfully intact, and help to counterbalance the more heartbreaking moments of the film, giving them gravity and power. He continues to prove himself a fascinating and unique voice in Hollywood film.
Come Oscar season, it is expected that ‘The Descendants’ will garner a lot of attention, and few films this past year would be as deserving. What is so magical about it though, is that awards and accolades never seem to be the aim of this film. It is a quiet, calm, beautiful little gem, and a heartfelt meditation on family, love and the things we choose to leave behind. It has no tricks up its sleeve, other than a terrific screenplay, beautiful performances and thoughtful direction. A film that definitely deserves to be seen and rewarded.