Billed as a film where George Clooney plays a father who is struggling to connect to his daughters while his wife lies comatosed in hospital I wasn’t expecting that much. I thought, despite being written and directed by the great Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt and Sideways), it would be a typical saccharine American story of a man “finding” himself but it was much much better than that. It wasn’t just about his immediate family crisis but also about the important role we all have in protecting our heritage. “The Descendants” of the title are not just his children but the descendants of his great-great grandparents, the son of a missionary who had married a Hawaiian princess. There is a large extended family who have been left land in trust which has slowly been sold off leaving one large area. They must decide what to do with this land. Matt King (George Clooney) is the executor of the trust which his cousins and their forebears have benefitted from over previous generations, ultimately he must decide what to do. At one point Matt’s narration suggests his family is like an archipelago ” all separate, but parts of the same whole and also drifting apart.” He also reflects that while appearing to be a paradise Hawaii isn’t. Life and its problems goes on even when you live in beautiful surroundings.
Back in his immediate family his eldest daughter, seventeen year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), has clearly had a wild adolescence filled with drugs, alcohol and unsuitable men and his younger daughter, ten year old Scottie (Amara Miller), has a precociousness which mixed with an “advanced” vocabulary belie a few issues. Matt has been emotionally removed from the family for what appears to be several years, he describes himself as the backup parent, working in his legal practice and leaving the parenting to his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie). Early on he acknowledges that the last time he had been alone with Scottie was seven years previously when she was three. Because he has been working he quite simply doesn’t know his daughters or, as it transpires. his wife.
A lot has been made of Clooney’s performance. I don’t know if it is his best (Goodnight and Good Luck is pretty impressive as is Syriana) but it is good. It is just the right balance of understated emotion, humour and tenderness. You can believe this is a man who is feeling real pain, angst and who believes in his bloodline. Of course he is always very pleasant to watch so that helps with any performance he gives! (OK that may belie a total lack on impartiality but if he was bad I would say).
Payne’s other films all centre around men in crisis and so it is no surprise that this is really what this is about. Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings book by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. There is a point where this film feels like a travelogue for Hawaii and it certainly works as it looks beautiful but otherwise this is well crafted, slowly bringing the story to its conclusion. Payne acknowledges the fragility of life and human relationships but also remindsus we are part of a chain going back thousands of years and which (we hope) will go on for thousands more. Without using the usual sledgehammer often applied to these tales The Descendants shows us that money has little value in the face of loss, families and heritage. Don’t go and watch this to be cheered up, although it is at time funny it is also heartbreaking. The Descendants is a film which I like even more now I can reflect on it than I did when I was watching it.