Screening Log #35: The Descendants (2011)

Written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, and Nick Krause




There’s something to be said for the connection between land and family, that a family’s relationship to its land is somehow representative of the family itself, or, perhaps, that land is somehow able to transcend temporal restrictions and allow family members to connect with their ancestors. When the land is big enough perhaps it is able to function this way for a larger community, a city, a country, holding onto some piece of collective identity. Alexander Payne’s adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, The Descendants, embeds this line of inquiry amid a web of other issues that entangle Matt King, George Clooney.

King is a lawyer whose wife, Elizabeth, has been seriously injured in a boating accident and is comatose. He is a lawyer and his family has always owned a large plot of Hawaiian land due to its lineage, going backward to King Kamehameha. This trust, however, is set to dissolve and Matt, as sole executor, has to balance the desires of a fleet of cousins, who want to sell the plot to a local developer, with what he thinks is in the best interest of land and Hawaii. The sale would fill his family’s, and his own, coffers significantly, but would mark another loss, of land and history, for the state of Hawaii. Matt has two daughters, Scottie, Amara Miller, the younger of the two, precious and strangely willful at ten, and Alexandra, Shailene Woodley, a teen who has abused substances in the past and been sent away to boarding school in the hopes of ironing out these issues. The home life of the King’s has been strained and Elizabeth’s coma exacerbates matters, most deeply when, after being brought home to be with the family, Alexandra informs her father that her most recent fight with her mother was because she’d seen Elizabeth cheating on Matt.

The film, from here, plays out as a delicate balancing act, striking a difficult equilibrium between serious dramatic issues inflected by moments of comedy, and shockingly comedic drama. Matt begins a quest to find the man with whom his wife was cheating, to offer him a chance to see Elizabeth in the hospital before she is removed from life support. Part mystery, part low-key road-trip film, Matt’s investigation is heightened by the impending vote on what his family wants to do with the land and to whom they will sell. There is relatively no chance that they won’t sell. The film is fair in its dealing with characters, even its less immediately likeable are portrayed as rounded and human: Elizabeth’s surly father, for example, who blames Matt, wrongly, for his daughter’s condition and idealizes her fidelity, among other things, is shown to be soft-hearted, hurting.

Payne’s films have always had a way of finding that sweet spot, perched between heavy drama and comedy, knowing that the line between either situation is painfully, and playfully, unclear at most times. His direction allows his actors room to work, while subtly – and sometimes not-so-subtly – reinforcing the beauty of Hawaii and why anyone would be reticent to sell their stake in it. Clooney gives one of his quieter and more naturalistic performances to lead a group of actors that are all above board. Thoughtfully assembled, and with much sensitivity to the complex and nuanced world of familial, historical, and legal issues, The Descendants, though understated, understands the gentle grasp one must take to hold onto these matters and the necessary differences between holding tight and letting go.


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