Friday, December 28, 2012

The Descendants

Directed by Alexander Payne.
2011. Rated R, 115 minutes.

Shailene Woodley
Beau Bridges
Matthew Lillard
Judy Greer
Nick Krause
Amara Miller
Robert Forster

Matt King (Clooney) is a successful businessman living in Hawaii with his wife and two daughters. His eldest daughter Alex (Woodley) is a troubled teen away at a boarding school. His world is turned upside down after his wife has a serious boating accident and goes into a coma. Things soon get worse when the doctor tells him she will never wake. Her will stipulates that in such a case she is to be removed from the respirator. Before this is done, Matt has to take on the task of telling family and friends so they can visit her and say goodbye, if they wish. This starts with wrangling the out of control Alex, breaking the news to her and enlisting her help him on this difficult journey.

As expected, everything is a struggle. We see a guy who obviously loves his daughters but hasn’t had to deal with them in the same way his wife had. With her condition looming large over every moment, him trying to bond with the girls and working on a major real estate deal that will affect the fortunes of his entire extended network of aunts, uncles and cousins, it’s easy to see why he’s overwhelmed. He puts his best foot forward as often as possible but the guy’s in pain. Shortly, his pain gets worse. I won’t spoil how, but if you’ve seen the trailer you probably know. It’s a development that alters things quite a bit and makes him an even more sympathetic character than when the movie first starts.

Clooney is perfect throughout. His Matt is normally a strong guy but is under tremendous pressure in every aspect of his life. He’s forced to come to grips with his failings as a parent, namely the detachment of a pre-occupied bread winner. That’s the biggest of many things that must change immediately. He has to confront his wife’s shortcomings while concealing them so he doesn’t ruin other people’s memories of her. Finally, the decision he must make about the real estate deal will not only impact his family but the entire state of Hawaii, too. He always wants to do the right thing. What that is and how to go about it is a frustrating process.

Another standout is Shailene Woodley as Alex. Her words and more impressively, her body language oozes a deep resentment for her mother. As 17 year old girls are wont to do, she’s given to flying off the handle at a moment’s notice, often with an expletive laced tirade. In fact, expletives make up much of her vocabulary. The trick is, even though she lacks more respectable words to express herself, she’s fully capable of using them believably in a moment of caring. Though they’re said with the same verve, we can tell the difference between the two.

Hawaii, itself, is also an important character. There is much talk about how she will be affected by the King family real estate deal. She becomes a living, breathing entity, exerting even more pressure on our hero. Expectedly, she’s a gorgeous lady. Having lived there a couple years, I hesitate to call what’s here cinematography. She’s such a great model, any one of us could just point a camera at her and she’ll do the rest. Nonetheless, she is framed beautifully, not just as a tourist destination but as a place where real people live.

Through it all, we bond with Matt and his girls. Our hearts tear for their situation and yearn for them to get some sort of peaceful closure. Even more so, we wish them some semblance of normalcy. We know the things they’re dealing with now will recede into the background of their lives, but we hope that the negative impact isn’t too great. We hope they’ll be okay.

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