(Published in Issue 6 of my publication In Retrospect)
Directed by Alexander Payne, The Descendants is an adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings‘ novel of the same name, which follows Matt King (George Clooney), a Honolulu-based lawyer and the trustee of a large part of land on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i which was trusted to his family. When his wife falls into a fatal coma after a boating accident, Matt is forced to reconnect with his two daughters, 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), but the subsequent revelation of his wife’s affair could mean that plan to sell his land has been thrown into the works, as his life begins to intertwine with that of Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) and his wife Julie (Judy Greer).
The Descendants is a true-to-life story which is dealt with in a way that everybody can take away something from its realistic exploration of how a family pull together in the time of tragedy. The film follows two story lines which ultimately come together at the end of the film, bringing together scenes of a heart-warming conclusion which show the true meaning of family. With this combination of a painfully honest portrayal of, not only the people, but also of the Hawaiian lifestyle, and the brilliant set of acting and relatable characters, there’s no surprise that everybody is shouting from the rooftops how brilliant this film is, especially after winning the Best Picture and Best Actor (Clooney) awards at the Golden Globes earlier this month.
The main aspect that works in this film is that the cast is a tremendous fit, both in the roles they play and as a family working together. George Clooney is at his best here, playing an ordinary man trying to pull his family back together. We all know that he is one of the greatest actors of our time, and I’m sure I would have really enjoyed Ides of March if I had watched it, but this is the first time that I came away from a film still thinking about how well he really worked in his role.
But whilst his role played a central part in the film’s success, it’s not all about him. His daughters, played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller also perform brilliantly. Woodly, especially, has a great role that she plays perfectly, as her character, I feel, is the one that draws in the emotional side of the film. Her portrayal of a slightly messed up teenage girl is very relatable as she, seeing her father struggle to cope with the news that his wife has been having an affair, steps up to help her family out. Again, it’s nice to see a genuine portrayal of a teenage girl in a film that isn’t over glamorised or plain irritating and, for that, I feel that the award nominations should be aimed at her too.
As for the other characters, when I first realised that Speer was played by Matthew Lillard I was very pessimistic. For me, Lillard will always be seen as the man who played Shaggy in the film adaptation of Scooby Doo and, for that reason, it was hard to accept his character. Whilst he does pull away from this immaturity that we are used to, I felt that someone more serious was needed to play his character so that we, as an audience, could build up an emotional reaction from his actions. His wife, played by Judy Greer, however, was a great addition to the cast. I’ve always been a fan of the roles she plays, after recently watching the first series of Arrested Development as well, so I enjoyed seeing her play in a recent and serious film.
But it’s not only the actors who need credit either, as director and screenplay writer Alexander Payne is the reason why this all worked so well. Having not read the novel that the film is based on, I still get the impression that it was a decent adaptation of Hemming’s work. The dialogue, especially, and the situations the characters were in felt so genuine that it was obvious a great writer was behind it.
However, whilst I think that The Descendants is a good film, I didn’t come away as impressed as most. With all the hype around the film beforehand I was expecting something a little more; I don’t know what it was but it wasn’t there. But that’s only in relation to what everybody has been saying. Without listening to the acclaimed appraisals that the film has been given, The Descendants is still a must-see, so if you plan to watch one film this month make sure it’s this one…and also Shame.