Never assume that just because Hawaii looks like paradise, life there really is so.
That is what Hawaiian lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) basically tells anyone who might be listening in the opening scenes of The Descendants, a new drama directed by Alexander Payne and adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.
Matt is a lawyer living in Oahu whose life has mostly been about being married to his work, while he also sits as the trustee of 25,000 acres of pristine Hawaiian land that has been in his family for generations. He barely pays attention to his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), and daughters, troublesome teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and loopy little girl Scottie (Amara Miller).
But Matt’s life is completely thrown off track after Elizabeth has a boating accident that puts her in a life-threatening coma, and suddenly, the self-described “back-up parent” has to take control. To add to his troubles, a new law may require him to sell his family’s land for development, and he finds out that Elizabeth was cheating on him with a real estate agent named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard).
The film follows Matt as he tries to cope with the possibility of losing his wife forever while also coming to terms with her infidelity, all while his money-hungry cousins descend to force him to sell the land and his daughters test him as a newly involved parent.
Though there is a lot going on in this film, it still manages to weave all the different parts together smoothly; it flows almost as nicely as the bright blue waves that slowly crawl onto the shores of the Hawaiian beach. It is also helped by phenomenal performances, brilliant cinematography and exquisite attention to detail.
Some of the shots in the film could come off as just trying to sell the beauty of the Hawaiian islands, showcasing tropical plants, white sandy beaches and crystal clear ocean waters. But with the exception of scenes showing the King family’s land, these are actually sparse, stepping into the background and allowing the actual story to take center stage. There are also nice shots that show the parts of Hawaii most people never think about the industrial cities that have sprung up there just as they have on the mainland.
The film also exhibits exquisite attention to detail, albeit in a morbid way, with how Elizabeth’s body appears each time the audience is taken to her hospital. Though it is extremely sobering, there are none of the usual Hollywood tricks (outside of makeup of course) used to show a dying person. The details of her dying body are so true-to-life, the audience is forced to wonder if the actress herself is actually dying.
What stands out the most, however, is the acting. Clooney does a phenomenal job, bringing Matt’s insecurities and faults to the forefront and making his lack of parenting skills authentic through an emotionally naked and relatable performance. But the true surprise is Shailene Woodley who arguably has a breakthrough here as Alexandra. Best known from television’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” here she shows that she can actually hold her own as an actress, convincingly playing a blunt, and accusatory, tough teen who can barely string two sentences together without cursing, but who may not actually be as tough as she looks.
Overall the film is smart, funny at times, but still deeply moving. It manages to delicately delve into the dynamics of familial relationships but not over burden its audience with what its true message really seems to be, one Matt stresses in his opening lines, no matter what you do, and no matter where you are, families are still just as screwed up. But, like Matt, the audience also learns by the film’s end that while that statement may be true, it really comes down to how that family deals when its strengths and emotions are tested to their core.