The Descendants (2011)

Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash

Death is unavoidable, it’s sort of what makes us human. Well, other things die, so perhaps it is not the only thing that sets us apart. But how we handle death, and the emotions that run with it does make us human. I have been fortunate enough to not have to go to many funerals in my lifetime, but there have been a few people close to me that have died, and I went through the grieving process just like anyone else. It is not an easy thing to lose somebody. At the same time, humans are imperfect creatures with flaws to overcome, accept and forgive. In death, it is important to remember all of the good things about a person, which helps put their bad times and imperfections into context. This is a film about imperfections and about flaws, and about what it means to be a family.

The film is set in Hawaii, but its narrator, Matt King (George Clooney), makes it abundantly clear that he does not live in paradise, despite what everyone from the mainland thinks it is like to live in Hawaii. King is a real estate lawyer and happens to be in charge of his family’s estate, whose trust ends in 7 years so he and his cousins must find a suitable buyer. However, everything is put into perspective when Matt’s wife Elizabeth is thrown into a coma after a boating accident. Matt and his two daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alex (Shailene Woodley) must go around to family and friends and explain what will happen with Liz, but they soon learn that she had been unfaithful to Matt, which complicates the grieving process.

One very important piece of information which is inserted in the narrative is that their great great great grandmother, one of the last remaining members of Hawaiian royalty, was set to marry her cousin, but fell in love with a banker named King. Life is not planned out and therefore is wildly unpredictable, especially whenever love is involved in the equation. The three core family members, and even the addition of the strange Sid (Nick Krause), come together and realize what is important in their lives: each other. And they are able to connect through the love they have for each other, despite the bad thing they have done, and in some cases to each other. Although they sometimes come across as dicks (Sid, I’m looking at you), they are good people, with good hearts and good intentions.

George Clooney gets top billing in the film and he should get top billing in my review because his performance is one of the best I have seen from what has already been a fantastic career. It is subtle at times and ultimately very human. I was seemingly experiencing the pressures and emotions right along side Matt which is a testament both to the performance as well as director Alexander Payne, whose work to this point I had not seen. There were so many instances where the film just connected with me in a sort of way where it played out almost exactly as I had hoped it would. Shailene Woodley should also get tons of credit because she is spectacular as the 17 year old daughter Alex. But balance is also struck, despite the many emotions running through. Comedy is also infused and makes it easier to swallow, which is not an easy thing to do,

Although it comes across as a very sad, depressing film (and it is), it is also a very happy, heartwarming film when taken from a different perspective. The strength, humanity, and most importantly the love of this family unit is strong enough to overcome the flaws and shortcomings it faces, the trials and tribulations, those moments in life when you need that person next to you to love you, and for you to love them. All of this builds and builds to the simplest ending of a movie you can imagine, and yet it is more emotionally effective than just about anything else put to film this year. It slowly evolves over time as we get to know the characters and for that reason I think it would be a great film to revisit. But as for now, on first viewing, I have to say that it is one of the more emotionally powerful films I have seen this year.


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