It should be no surprise that a collaboration between everyone’s favourite big screen charmer George Clooney and Alexander Payne, the man behind such recent classics as Election and Sideways, is great. What is surprising is that The Descendants manages to even surpass those stratospheric expectations most fans will have walking into the theatre and cement its spot on many people’s Top 10 films of the year list.
Clooney plays Mike King, a successful real estate lawyer who lives in Hawaii With his two daughters and his wife Elizabeth, who’s just suffered a terrible boating accident that has put her in a coma, forcing him into reluctant full-time fatherhood. Days after, the doctors tell him that his wife will never wake up and per her living will, they’re required to take her off life support and let nature take its course.
Distraught by the news, Mike faces the terrible task of telling his daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), a rebellious teen who’s been shunted off to a boarding school for troubled kids and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), a rebel-in-training with a penchant for flipping people the bird and handing in school projects featuring photo essays of her comatose mother.
Alexandra has a difficult relationship with her mother, which she eventually reveals was in part due to the fact that she found out that Elizabeth was cheating on Mike. After a little investigation and some soul searching, Mike discovers the name of the man Elizabeth was sleeping with and he and Alexandra set out on a mission inform him that Elizabeth is about to die.
On top of that, Mike also has to deal with even more family drama in the form of a large swath of paradisal coastland dating back to his ancestor King Kamehameha that has been handed down through the generations of his family. The trust is about to dissolve, meaning he and his mostly broke cousins have to sell.
As the trustee, Mike is responsible for deciding which of the multi-million dollar developer offers to choose – a decision that will affect not only his desperate family members but the lives of every citizen on the island of Kauai. His cousins are constantly whispering their opinions in his ear and thanks to several newspaper articles on the sale, so do random strangers he runs into on the street.
The Descendants is arguably Payne’s most effective work to date, mainly because it feels like he’s growing as an artist. The story is clearly the sum of Payne’s past screenplays and their themes. In this film (as with many of his others) he deals with the issues of identity, heritage, responsibility, fidelity and forgiveness, this time with a level of emotional sophistication that is truly awe-inspiring. Payne and his co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have delivered a screenplay (based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings) that is perfectly balanced in tone, paving the way for a story that feels entirely natural and lifelike.
Clooney is also in top form, besting his impressive and underrated turns in films such as O Brother Where Art Thou? and Three Kings (not to mention what many thought to be the role of his career in Up in the Air). He wears Mike’s devastation over his wife’s affair and his uneasiness at being a single parent on his sleeve in subtle ways through almost every scene. He’s matched scene for scene by Woodley who believably transforms from an angry teen to a young woman who realizes she has to step up to the plate in her mother’s absence. The film also boasts an impressive cast of ensemble actors including Beau Bridges, Judy Greer and Robert Forster who make the most of the bit of screen time they have.
This is a film that thoughtfully asks the question, without a trace of melodrama or sappiness, “What do we inherit and how do we pass it on?” It underscores the basic truth that life can be dark, laugh-out-loud funny, heartbreakingly sad, and achingly sweet.
The Descendants is all of those things and more.