In The Descendants, Academy Award winning Director Alexander Payne celebrates the fracturing and healing of a family in tragedy. If the premise sounds like the story line straight out of a Full House episode, think again; the result is really quite surprising.
George Clooney, America’s most famous actor for playing George Clooney, plays George Clooney, I mean Matt King, a Hawaiian real estate lawyer and wealthy land baron to a pristine tract of land in Kauai. We meet King in the midst of family tragedy; his wife Elizabeth is in an irreversible coma after being thrown from a motor boat. His oldest daughter, the gutter-mouthed and delinquent Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), is quickly collected from boarding school to make peace with her mother; not an easy feat, as Alexandra knows the ugly truth of her mother’s secret life. Matt’s youngest daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), is on the brink of taking a turn akin to her sister’s. Matt, who refers to himself as “the back-up parent”, must rationalize his imperfect marriage to Elizabeth in the face of her death, make a decision on the much-publicized sale of his aristocratic family’s land of legacy, and repair his distant relationship with his children, all in one movie. Can ya dig it?
It would have been easy for Director Alexander Payne to take a script so overrun with opportunities for family hugs and montages and turn this film into an overly sentimental cry for audience’s tears. Payne gains the viewer’s sympathies and investments without such cheap ploys. He takes a similar attitude of de-contextualization and randomness to the false paradise of Hawaii as he did to Napa in Sideways and to Nebraska in About Schmidt. The plot, unmoored and wandering, feels rich in humour and sincerity. Clooney’s natural charisma fits well on the Tommy Bahama enthusiast, Matt King. Clooney handles the imperfections of Matt with staggering earnestness and ease. Although we may easily see how Matt could negate his responsibilities and joys of marriage and fatherhood, we sympathize with his plight, his anger, and his mistakes. Perhaps a dose of George Clooney was entirely necessary, after all.
Ms. Woodley’s performance as an angsty, angry teen is raw and unmanaged in all the right ways. We feel her deep-rooted resentment for her mother Elizabeth, whose constant silence throughout the film unnerves us so thoroughly. The many chances for Alexandra to become a whiney, unsympathetic, “I hate the world” adolescent pass without so much as a ‘hello’. And yes, Shailene Woodley was the original Caitlin Cooper from The O.C.. Just fyi.
The young Amara Miller deserves as much, if not more praise for her disproportionately mature performance as Scottie. The 11-year-old, who claimed not to know who George Clooney was prior to filming, is so randomly cruel and human as she navigates her character’s familial transitions. Miller, in her first film, possess the valuable quality as an actor of being new and unbruised by too many acting classes and directors. Hers is quite simply the most honest performance in the bunch.
As far as its Oscar future goes, it could not be brighter. Oscar darlings Payne and Clooney might just be an unbeatable combination of sincerity and dimples. Although it was edged out completely in the Gotham Independent Film Awards, I don’t think the snub will be too damaging to its chances come Oscar night. Payne will most certainly receive a nod for Best Director, while the Academy just can’t say no to that marriage-hating, salt-and-pepper stud Clooney for Best Actor. My personal biases aside, Clooney is very strong in this film. It far outdoes his joint directorial and acting efforts in the less sophisticated The Ides of March. He should get a nomination, but not a win. Shailene Woodley will and should get a nomination for Best Actress. Amara Miller will and probably won’t receive a nod for Best Supporting Actress. As far as Best Picture goes, its nomination is sure-fire. Although I personally believe that The Tree of Life is a stronger film, I still feel that Payne’s tale of legacy and familial fracture just might take home the biggest statue of them all.
Did you see the Descendants? Share your thoughts with a comment, why dontchya?