Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (2011) is a lovely meditation on human imperfection and familial love. While Sideways explored the isolating potential of eccentricity and obsession, Payne uses his newest film to examine the healing effects of love and connection. Every character in The Descendants is a significantly flawed individual, but these imperfections do not define them. With a brilliant cast and a screenplay that blends humor and pathos, Payne has made a film populated by real people, living in the “real” Hawaii.
The Descendants tells the story of a middle-aged father, Matt (George Clooney), whose wife is in a coma after a boating accident. As the self-described “backup parent,” he must now figure out how to interact effectively with his two daughters, 17-year-old Alex (a radiant Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller). When Alex tells him that his wife was cheating on him, Matt has to come to terms with his new view of her as he says goodbye and spreads the word of her condition to family and friends.
Mr. Clooney gives the most heartfelt performance of his career, abandoning all sense of “cool” and vanity. He is unabashedly middle-aged, and to watch him run awkwardly in loafers is only one of the many moments of physical comedy in the film. He also nails some really emotional moments – his facial expressions when the doctor tells him his wife’s prognosis are heartbreaking to watch. Matt’s relationship to his daughters is the center of the film, and these two promising actresses work wonderfully with Mr. Clooney. I actually found myself sad at the end that they were not a real family.
The cast of characters surrounding the main family is colorful but realistic. Nick Krause is hilarious as Alex’s stoner boyfriend with a hidden perceptive side (a la Keanu Reeves in Parenthood), and the ever dependable Judy Greer gives a lovely, nuanced performance later in the film. With every character in The Descendants, their redeeming factor is their love for the people close to them. Even Matt’s father-in-law, an insensitive, passive-aggressive bully who punches a teenage boy in the face, is made human when we witness his love for his daughter. Love is what defines humanity in this film.
The uncredited star of the film is Hawaii. In my opinion, Kauai is the most beautiful place in the world, and Mr. Payne shoots its lush valleys and mountainsides with the adoration they deserve. He is also committed, however, to portraying the ‘normal’ side of Hawaii, the anti-paradise. The family’s house is strewn with damp leaves, and the sky in their Oahu neighborhood is perpetually grey. Paradise does not necessarily produce happy people. Just like the other characters in the film, Hawaii has plenty of flaws. When Matt finds a place he cannot part with, however, both he and the island are healed.