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Film Review: The Descendants

February 11, 2012
George Clooney and Shailene Woodley‘s charaters play off each other perfectly in The Descendants
The Descendants is a simple story, where if you were to put yourself in the shoes of the protagonist Matt King (George Clooney), you would feel anxious and scared about your world that seems to be collapsing. It is about a man trying hard to hold the pieces of his world in place with a smile and with dignity, while seeing sides of him that he never knew existed.

Set in Hawaii, the narrative takes off with Matt telling us about his wife Elizabeth’s speedboat accident which has left her comatose. For the last 15 days, he has been surrounded by medical bills and hospital paraphernalia, and he has been handling two daughters, 17-year old Alex (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller), who can be quite a handful and are picking up quite a mouthful. He confesses he has never really been around for them, and he has no clue about what to do now.

The vast ancestral land bequeathed to his extended family, of which he is the sole trustee, has to be sold off and his cousins are eagerly waiting for their share of money. To top it all, Alex informs him of the reason she and Elizabeth had their last unforgiveable altercation, which shakes Matt and brings his world to a standstill.

The plot then follows Matt as he bonds with his daughters (over big bowlfuls of ice cream), informs friends and relatives of his wife’s impending death, and goes through a personal journey discovering facets of anger, jealousy, restraint and competitiveness and the preservation of his self-respect and dignity; feelings that he had not experienced so deeply before. 

Helped by Alex and their mutual concern and love for Scottie, they grow to trust each other and just be there to make life comfortable and as easy for each other as they can. The treatment of Matt’s desperate need to know if he had become insignificant in his wife’s life is particularly wonderful and makes his attempts to be a good father quite believable.

Director Alexander Payne‘s (About Schmidt, Sideways) The Descendants is a close look at real families, where humour and light moments make appearances even during troubled times, and act as the impetus to seeking positive ways to deal with them. Woodley is a gifted actor who plays wonderfully off Clooney’s relative reticence with her still-maturing adulthood and the bit of drama that girls her character’s age are prone to. 

A scene to remember would be when Alex stands up for Matt as their maternal grandfather blames him for Elizabeth’s unhappy life, and death – Matt stays quiet to not ruin their daughter’s memory for them, but his daughter takes charge of the moment when her protective instincts kick in. Similarly, the way her concern for Scottie’s well-being prompts her to convince her baby sister to stop interacting with an annoying classmate is hilarious.

The film is not just a satirical take on American society or about the beautiful Hawaiian setting. It is about the tumultous phase in a man’s life and his personal struggle to overcome the ill-feelings that threaten his happiness and his faith in himself  –  the phase being marked by perfectly defined moments of Matt’s recognition of how important Elizabeth was to him and the resolution of his anger, anxiety, indecisiveness and resumption of a normal life with Alex and Scottie. He wants to be capable, to be accepted and to be at peace with himself, which he succeeds in finding at the end of this phase.

The script adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings‘ book of the same name is backed by strong supporting performances by Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Nik Krause and Robert Forster among others who add value to the film. The editing and cinematography are effective in keeping the film well-paced and in setting the mood, which is light yet deep and introspective. It is no doubt then that the film has been nominated for five Oscars. It is a must-watch and it stays with you long afterwards, making you smile.
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From → 2011 Movies

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