DVD Release Date: March 13, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: November 18, 2011 (limited); November 23 (wider)
Rating: R (for strong language including sexual references)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 115 min.
Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Nick Krause, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges, Amara Miller

Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the indie director/producer duo, have elevated The American Film Canon with distinct works like Sideways, Election and others. It’s a shock, then, when their latest film opens with a series of clunky scenes that are downright mediocre, even amateurish. Bewildered I thought, “Come on, guys, you’re better than this.”

Thankfully, the rest of the film proved me right.

The Descendants—based on a novel by Hawaiian author Kaui Hart Hemmings—is bogged down at the start with a near-constant voice-over by Matt King (George Clooney, The Ides of March), a man whose strained relationship with his two daughters is now amplified by the fact that his wife Elizabeth has suffered a near-fatal boating accident and lies comatose in an Oahu hospital. In the midst of paradise, they’ve just been hit with tragedy.

The timing is a further complication, too, as it comes during a controversial land deal involving Matt’s family. Having inherited vast acres of seaside terrain his ancestors purchased in the nineteenth century, Matt and his cousins must sell it all before the trust that gives them ownership finally expires. As the head trustee, Matt carries the responsibility of not only doing right by his family but must also bear the concerns of all Hawaiians who fear the sale will go to rich developers that would pillage the land of its purity.

Lazily, Payne and his co-screenwriters burden the opening scenes with mountains of exposition. Every unnatural conversation forces in details, not so much unpacking information as simply dumping it outright. The bit-part non-professionals around Clooney are particularly stiff, making it worse. 

The voice-over is a device rather than a creatively-motivated choice, an assumption proven true when after about 15 minutes the VO is summarily (and thankfully) dropped from the rest of the film. For such gifted storytellers, it feels more like by-the-numbers Hollywood hackery.

But with the introduction of Matt’s eldest teen daughter Alexandra, The Descendants takes an instant qualitative turn for the better. She is the wild-card spark the story needs (in personality, conflict, and as an ongoing catalyst) and, with her, Payne finds his directorial bearings. The film no longer tells; it portrays and reveals.

Alexandra, a rebellious foul-mouthed problem-child, is summoned back from boarding school when her mom’s condition deteriorates. As the estranged father and daughter finally begin to talk, things are discovered and truths exposed that take the grieving process to newer, more complicated levels. Matt learns things about his wife he never knew, and the looming threat of her passing may leave many questions and hurts painfully unresolved.

It’s a lot to process for both Matt and Alexandra—he with shame, her with guilt, and both with anger. That shared anger becomes a unifying force, setting them on a journey to find answers that may not even be attainable and, even if they are, could do more harm than good. Matt and Alexandra’s opposing personalities—previously a source of tension—become a balance for the other’s vulnerabilities.