Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.
What I found interesting initially about The Descendants is the setting. The film is set in Hawaii, and it immediately affects how one views the proceedings. That is until George Clooney’s voiceover comes in and tells us it shouldn’t. He says something I never consciously thought of—Hawaii is just a place like any other. Sure, it’s paradise, but people still live and work and die. Things are just as fatal, just as dangerous, just as sad. This is relevant, because as the film starts, we find ourselves in a hospital.
Matt King (Clooney) is a lawyer as well as the sole trustee of a massive land trust inherited from generations back in a direct line from King Kamehameha. The trust runs out in seven years, though, and so the family is considering the sale of their final parcel of land—25,000 acres of pristine beachfront on Kauai. Just as the sale is preparing to go through, King’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie, in a role that required her to essentially lie in bed with her mouth open) is in a serious speedboat accident and rendered comatose. We learn early on that this is a permanent situation; she will never recover. Because of her living will, the family pulls the plug and begins saying goodbye.
That might be enough for a film, but not enough for a really engaging one, so naturally there are a number of complications. The Kings have two daughters—Alex (Shailene Wooley), who is foul-mouthed and who jumps from boarding school to boarding school because of her behavior; and Scottie (Amara Miller), who has started acting out in school and bullying other kids. Things are further complicated when it is revealed that Elizabeth King was having an affair. Matt finds out when Alex tells him, and suddenly the quest to find this man and achieve closure becomes the singular drive in Matt King’s life. All of this is further complicated by the fact that Matt King’s kids are out of control, and he has always been so busy with his career that he hasn’t been much of a parent.
And so, the bulk of the film is coming to terms with the loss of Elizabeth and the restructuring of the King family. It also involves tracking down Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), the man with whom Elizabeth was having an affair. And just to make things nice and spicy, it turns out that Brian is the son-in-law of the man at the top of the list for buyers and will stand to make a fortune on commission from the sale of the land.
The best thing about The Descendants is how plainly human it is. These are people in pain and dealing with their situation as best they can, and their mechanisms for coping are completely human as well. There are moments of humor, but also moments of pain. The way the children act out is almost flawless in how much sense it makes and how accurately it is portrayed. Elizabeth’s father (Robert Forster) is precisely how we think of a father-in-law, always defending his daughter and antagonizing his son-in-law, and again, this is just about perfect. It’s a truly masterful script in this respect; not a line seems out of place.
One of Alex’s points of rebellion is her insistence on the presence of Sid (Nick Krause), a stereotypically Hawaiian surfer dude with few manners and no social graces who slowly becomes one of the more interesting and engaging characters in the film. It’s also without a doubt the best role and the best work of Matthew Lillard’s career for the short period of time he’s on screen. Who knew the guy had it in him?
I very much enjoy the relationships here, even if they are somewhat alien to me. I’m deeply involved in the lives of my kids, so being so detached from them doesn’t sit right with me, although I understand it. It’s a real joy to see these relationships start to form and grow as the film progresses, particularly between Matt and Alex, who end up much closer by the close.
If I need to pick out a negative here, it’s the language. There’s a vast amount of language, and the bulk of it comes from Alex. That’s not the sort of thing that bothers me in general—I’m far more likely to let my own kids watch something with language than with sex or violence. It’s just surprising to having so much of it coming from someone of this age. And, in truth, this complaint is more of a warning for more sensitive viewers. If language bothers you, it’ll bother you more here, coming out of a young person’s mouth.
Anyway, this is a smart, well-made film. Despite the setting, it’s a film that concentrates on the story and the people, since this is where the interest should be. It could have ended up as a travelogue for Hawaii, but it never gets there despite the gorgeous scenery in places and the Hawaiian music throughout. In other words, I liked this and liked it more than I expected.
Why to watch The Descendants: It’s the most human film I’ve seen from 2011 so far.
Why not to watch: Foul language from young mouths, if that sort of thing offends you.