When an accident sends his wife into a potentially fatal coma, Matt King (Clooney
) has to find a way to reconnect with his daughters, negotiate a major land deal and navigate the perils of a terrible revelations – all while dealing with the impending tragedy.
It’s been eight years since Alexander Payne
gifted us with wine-quaffing dramedy Sideways
but the director has created a new cinematic vintage with The Descendents
Based on a book by Hawaiin native Kaui Hart Hemmings
which was released in 2007, the writer director spent almost a year on the islands getting to know the people and the culture with the help of the author, using her to help scout locations and add an edge of unforced authenticity to the proceedings.
Chiefly, it’s a drama about Matt’s attempt to come to terms with the changes wrought by his wife’s accident. A back seat father for much of the last decade, he’s forced to not only interact but actively curb 10 year old Scottie’s acting out. For the most part, he’s totally clueless – a fact the film brings home wonderfully when his only recourse in the face of a verbal outburst by 17 year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley
) is a spanking.
A revelation about his wife’s past forces the trio, plus stoner hanger on Sid (Nick Krause
), on an investigative adventure to another island. It’s an important dramatic step, allowing the family to bond and giving Matt some necessary closure, but the situation is so emotionally fraught that it could easily implode at a moment’s notice.
Payne handles these moments beautifully, building up a scenario in which Matt needs to confront his wife but simply can’t and the tension that creates, as well as the solution the character finds, is powerful and heart-breaking.
There’s lightness in The Descendants
too, but fans of Sideways
will find a deficit of chuckles. The characters are faced with realistic events and respond, for the most part, as people do – with all the potentially erratic behaviour of the grieving and the bereft.
has already earned a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination (one of five for the film)
and there’s little doubt it’s his best role to date. Bronzed and be-shorted, the character could easily be seen as ridiculous but rarely does. He’s a man desperately trying to cope with a terrible situation and one who takes an unusual course towards the only resolution he can find. But Matt is also possessed of a rare kind of honour – choosing in several moments to keep silent when it would be far more easier, and satisfying, to give other characters a taste of reality.
is ably assisted by some strong young performers in Amara Miller
and Woodley – who starts out as a bitchy teen stereotype and becomes her father’s life line as the movie progresses. Judy Greer
, Matthew Lillard
and a terrifically conflicted Robert Forster
all do good work but the show belongs to Clooney and we wouldn’t be surprised to see him net his first lead acting Oscar this February.
sometimes leans a little heavily on its written roots for some awkward voice over and the narrative relevance of the impending land deal is never made that clear but the central drama is so emotionally resonant and relatable that you’ll soon forget about everything else and Clooney is simply outstanding.