With its people and culture so detached from the rest of America, often Hawaii is considered the 51st state – but the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Even among the warm sunshine, perfect beaches, floral print shirts, hula dresses and coconut trees, life in the seemingly utopia of Hawaii doesn’t go untouched by life’s bitter tragedies. Even in paradise; cancers, deaths, infidelities and betrayals don’t hurt any less. So it’s here in a land often unexplored by American cinema, that writer/director Alexander Payne uses so expertly and poignantly as a backdrop to this most moving of family dramas.
The Descendants sees George Clooney delivering the most emotionally gripping performances of his career as Matt King, a Honolulu lawyers and father of two going through the most precarious stage of his life. His wife is left in a comatose state after a boat accident, leaving him as the sole career of his two daughters. Alexander (Shailene Woodley) is tough, cynical and far more mature than her teenage years suggest and Scoter is a precocious pocket rocket at the early stages of puberty. To say Matt is hopeless with the pair would be a massive understatement; in the midst of such two spirited and opinionated young women, he often finds himself like a deer frozen in head lights. To further add to his problems, clouding every inch of his existence is the stress of being the main trustee of his ancestor’s land, which he must decide whether to sell for a nine figure settlement or to keep for his descendants. But then, the unimaginable and personally earth shattering happens to Matt; during a heated argument with Alex she regrettably divulges to Matt that his wife had been cheating on him during the later course of their marriage.
In the ilk of Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan and David O’Russell, Alexander Payne is one of those few directors with an almost flawless film CV. Each of his films possesses a wry humour and interesting character studies that both captivate and baffle in each of their own strange quirky ways. Remember Tracy Flick in Election, Myles from Sideways or Woody Grant from Nebraska? No one writes flawed characters better than Alexander Payne. In Matt King Payne crafts a man who on the surface may appear a pillar of his community – a father of two, attractive (Come on, it’s George Clooney!) and success in his profession. However below the surface he is incredibly uncertain of his skills as a father, strength of family ties and the direction of his future.
But Payne can’t take sole plaudits for Matt King because George Clooney did his part by delivering an immaculate performance that was free from calculation, technique or even thought, instead he allowed it to blossom with sincerity and openness. Another key performance was from Shailene Woodley, who despite her tiny frame she has the emotion power of an atom bomb just below the surface. In every one of her scenes, Woodley’s face was a canvas that she used to weave a rich tapestry of emotion that she also expertly coaxes you into believing and feeling too.
It should come as no surprise that the screenplay penned by director Alexander Payne with help of writers Jim Rash and Nat Faxon won an Oscar in 2011. The Descendants is a film that boldly aims to show that regardless of wealth, origin or age, life’s difficulties are non-discriminatory and strike in an instant like lighting and cause unfathomable pain. Leaving us with the only hope that the love and bonds we are fortunate in life to have, are strong enough to help us weather the storms and once again find a ray of happiness among it all.