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.

As they chase leads to the nearby island of Kauai, Matt’s anger gives way to unexpected and surprising (some would even say foolish) levels of grace. But it is the extension of grace that allows Matt to heal, forgive, let go, and recapture love in a deeper way that is, perhaps for the first time, selfless. He finally, truly knows her . . . and still loves her.

It’s a love not defined by feelings but rather made in spite of them, in spite of hurt, birthed from a newfound humility, a recognition of flawed humanity, not requiring reciprocation, and the courage to accept that regardless of what choices they’ve made he still loves her, he always has, and will likely be the last who ever will. In the act of extending grace to her, he receives it himself.

Even with the small but crucial supporting turns considered, The Descendants is ultimately a two-person powerhouse of George Clooney and relative newcomer Shailene Woodley (TV’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager) as Alexandra.

Clooney gives Matt a basis of polite repression that fits well into the Hawaiian culture, then exposes pain even as he tries to suppress it, only to give way to appropriate outbursts that ring true in grief. It’s a guarded yet, at turns, unpredictably raw performance that may garner Clooney his second Academy Award. 

Oscar-buzz will certainly surround Woodley, too. As the smart but emotionally-conflicted teenager, she shows a deeper turmoil beneath the extroverted angst. We eventually sympathize for this initially petulant brat, all to Woodley’s credit. Never self-conscious or showy, Woodley inhabits every moment. She is a real discovery.

Payne’s patient direction gives these actors the moments and time they need to explore and reveal, with tones both humorous and dramatic. While the quirky, satirical and even provocative sensibilities of Payne’s previous efforts emerge here, The Descendants is his most tender film to date. Sideways was gentle in moments, but here tenderness is a constant undercurrent even in the midst of conflict. Payne’s not just fascinated by these characters; he empathizes.

Though The Descendants is a universally affecting film at its core, the liberal use of profanities and occasional crude sexual references will take many viewers by surprise, and certainly rub some the wrong way (especially as much of the frank dialogue comes from a teenager). Nevertheless, it’s true to the nature of a family that denies its own dysfunction and then finds itself ill-equipped to cope with unavoidable realities. Would that we all choose grace under similar circumstances.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: A teenage girl is drunk, and profanely mouths-off to her father. Adults drink casually in other scenes, but not intoxicated. 
  • Language/Profanity: Profanities are consistent throughout, including common usage of the f-word. The s-word is used a handful of times. The GD form of taking the Lord’s name in vain is used about six times. Much of the profane content is delivered by a teenage girl. A grade school girl “flips the bird” on two occasions, and uses a few profanities as well.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: Sexually crude words are used. Multiple uses of the “t”-word and “p”-word (both slang for female genitalia) are spoken in a few different scenes, by a teenager. A reference is made to masturbation. A reference to porn is made when porn movie options are seen on a hotel TV. The term “nuts” is used in a crude sexual manner.
  • Violence: An older man punches a young man in the face (in a comical context).