Best known for writing and directing films featuring strong yet confounded male figures embarking upon life-changing journeys – think Jack Nicholson’s retired soul-searcher in About Schmidt, or Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church’s middle-aged hopeless romantics in Sideways – Alexander Payne makes a long awaited return with family drama The Descendants, admiringly carrying on that theme.
Here, George Clooney plays Matt King, an established Hawaiian land baron. After his wife (Patricia Hastie) suffers a horrific water-skiing accident, he’s forced to reconnect with his two estranged daughters, Scottie and Alexandra (Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley), all the while dealing with his wives infidelity and his responsibility as primary beneficiary of his family’s land.
Adapted from what can be – certainly upon first look – deemed as a commonplace coming of age family drama, Payne and his crack team of screenwriters – Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (Community’s Dean Pelton) – ensure the narrative stays true to its low-key, authentic roots without ever feeling too pallid, no matter how often it threatens to overstep the line. Part of the success lies in their ability to sidestep a tedious subplot and maintain a committed focus on the characters’ emotional and physical journeys, both individually as well as part of a family unit. Each characters’ fruition feels as valuable as the last, with the dynamic working best when they’re all together attacking their difficulties head-on.
Not particularly known for having a recognisable directing style, Payne handles the material with commendable flare. He takes full advantage of the luscious Hawaiian backdrop, without ever losing touch of the understated sensibility everyone worked so hard to establish. By adopting a more laid-back approach to his shots and placings (albeit after a first act misstep in the form of a distracting, obnoxious voiceover), Payne remains entirely committed to the material and its inhabiting characters, leaving them room to breathe, while adopting the necessary invasive shots when absolutely necessary.
As touched upon above, acting is key to The Descendants’ success in masking its flaws and engaging its audience, and every single member of the ensemble is as devoted as the last. Clooney admirably dodges his accustomed suave demeanour to achieve a performance that demonstrates far more range than usual. Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard prove skilful in their respective turns, applying their comedic talents to more dramatic material. It’s Woodley, however, as the cocky-come-compassionate and mature Alexandra who steals the film. It’s a remarkable first-time performance and will undoubtedly serve as a hefty starting point to a likely burgeoning career.
In regards to its recent Academy Award nominations – Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Editing, with Best Actor for Clooney – it’s certainly deserving, and the Academy seem to have recognised the films strong points in all the right categories, apart from one quite glaring exception: Woodley. It’s a shame, because in comparison to Clooney’s performance, hers is more than an inch ahead. Unfortunately, it comes as no surprise that she’s been excluded where someone like Clooney, as career defining as his turn may be, has a certain unfair advantage when it comes to voters’ decisions. More up-and-coming actresses like Woodley deserve recognition for their contributions, especially when they’re this tenacious.
Overall, by maintaining a looseness and honesty throughout that enables it to hit you hard in all the right places, while providing a fair share of laughs and poignant moments along the way, The Descendants is a truthful tale that benefits in droves from its wholehearted cast and writers ability to use Hemmings’ source material to it’s greatest potential.