Matt King (George Clooney: The Ides of March) is too busy for tragedy. The lawyer is the family trustee of the last untouched beach in Kauai, and his cousins are pressuring him to sell. But before King can make a final decision on which $100 million offer to take, his wife has a boating accident that lands her in an irreversible coma.
Now, King must come to terms with that fact and two daughters he barely knows. The process is even harder than it sounds.
Long the absentee parent, King must wrangle young Scottie (Amara Miller in her screen debut), who acts out whenever she can, and teenage Alexandra (Shailene Woodley: The Secret Life of the American Teenager), who’s been into drugs.
King’s life is made more complicated when Alexandra reveals that mommy dearest was having an affair. Shattered by the revelation, King and Alexandra set off to track down the other man while trying to keep Scottie in the dark.
The whole thing sounds like a farce, but under the direction of Alexander Payne (Sideways), The Descendants is an utterly realistic film about how people grieve.
Payne works hard to chip away the veneer of his characters and his setting. Hawaii is an urban paradise where Tommy Bahama-clad businessmen meet in skyscrapers to make million-dollar deals. Instead of its typical post-card beauty, he shows what natives might see: Grimy cars parked along crowded streets and cheesy tropical decorations cluttering clubs and restaurants.
Payne also gives Clooney the chance to be more than the handsomest man in the room, with surprising results. In his best performance yet, Clooney is a befuddled man barely able to keep himself and his family moving forward. He’s deeply in love with his wife but enraged by her betrayal. He’s at a loss with both his daughters, but he finds his way in leading them through mourning.
Woodley’s performance makes Alexandra a true rarity in film: A teenager who feels real without being irritating. Her relationship with Clooney’s King is the focus of the film and a great achievement for both actors. They battle, bolster and protect each other without stopping to have a Hallmark-style chat.
Payne wisely packs the movie with veteran actors who shine in peripheral roles. Beau Bridges (My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend) is a subtle pressure on King as Cousin Hugh, a deceptively shrewd beach bum. Robert Forster (The Trial) steals his handful of scenes as King’s aggressive father-in-law, fiercely protective of the daughter he thinks he knew.
The Descendants makes each step the family takes embarrassing, funny, heartbreaking and truthful. There’s plenty of drama, but Payne finds comedy and sweetness in even the most tragic situations. The Descendants might not be the escapist fare that’s typically set on the Hawaiian Islands, but it’s the type of film that wins both audiences and awards without pandering to the image of paradise.