Year’s best family in crisis
Oscar winning director –writer Alexander Payne is a master of period pieces. Not the kind that involve lavish Versailles era set pieces or ensembles stuffed with British actors trained in Shakespearean repertory. The aptly named Payne has an extraordinary ability to adroitly examine people, men in particular, at crossroads – periods if you will— of high conflict.
His previous films (“Sideways,” “Election,” and “About Schmidt”) had as many moments of brilliance as they did of pretense. But with “The Descendants” a superbly absorbing film, Mr. Payne has hit his stride.
He’s helped considerably by the nuanced performance of George Clooney, who sheds most of his traditionally cool veneer to play Matt King, a real estate lawyer who must decide whether to sell his family’s large estate on Kauai to developers. It would make for an incredible windfall especially for his mostly lethargic cousins, but he’s torn by the legacy of his island heritage.
But that’s not his only problem. His wife is left comatose after a boating accident and then another bombshell drops by way of his foul-mouthy 17 year-old Alexandra (A believable in every attitude Shailene Woodley). As the “back-up parent” he struggles to console his other daughter, 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller). It is all a balancing act that Matt tries desperately to manage and though he is a good guy in nearly every respect he seems oddly, and at times, comically inept at the curveballs that life in supposed paradise throws at him.
But comedy is not the goal of Payne’s tough and tender portrait of a family in crisis mode. (The story is based on the 2007 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings).
The beauty of “The Descendants” is the way the film makes a revealing case for mining the truths of seemingly real people coping with real issues without ever seeming forced.
Speaking of beauty, Payne’s living on the islands for 8 months prior to shooting obviously helped him effectively capture Hawaii’s lush natural wonders, as well as the everyday lifestyle details right down to the roaming roosters.
“The Descendants” is a marvelous journey. Nearly every frame feels not just poignant but relatable. There’s some pretty tricky material for Payne and crew to navigate, but anchored by a terrific cast it’s a journey of hurt and healing that lingers.
Rated R for language including about 22 “F” words and some sexual references.