The Descendants is a difficult movie for me to describe correctly. If you want to go to the cinema for a couple of hours entertainment, then this probably isn’t the film for you. If however you want to see George Clooney give one of his best and most subtle and understated performances, then this is a definite that you need to see. It’s actually unfair to highlight Clooney individually as the entire cast do a marvellous job of making a work of fiction feel very real.
When his wife is put into a coma in a boating accident, Mike King’s life takes a turn as he needs to shift his focus from his work as a lawyer in Hawaii to becoming a regular father to two daughters Scotty and Alex, the youngest testing the boundaries of his fatherhood control, and the elder in boarding school with a history of casual drinking and drugs. When it’s revealed that the wife was actually having an affair, Mike’s life begins to unravel further.
Truth be told, it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of plot movement throughout the film. Like the acting, the plot is subtle with no massively surprising reveals or “woah, I never saw that coming” moments, yet it feels natural and flows well. There were points where I found myself wondering whether I was enjoying it or not, but afterwards as I thought about it more I realised where its strengths lay and what I enjoyed most about it. The simple answer to that is the performances.
With the exception of Alex’s friend Sid every character feels real, grounded and down to earth. Mike’s unexpected full time parent role confuses him and he spends most of the movie lost as to how to deal with things. Even when he successfully locates his wife’s lover, he’s still unsure of how to proceed. Alex, Mike’s wayward eldest daughter, begins as the atypical drunken teenager, but when she breaks the news of her mothers infidelities and he decides to track down her lover, their relationship grows and they become much closer. She almost takes on the role of her mother in helping to look after young Scotty.
Mike backs down a lot and lets life flow over him without much confrontation, but he doesn’t feel weak or lame. George Clooney obviously retains his natural charm – he can’t out act that – but he plays his part very low key which I really liked. You never feel that Mike is a hero or strong character, yet never find him to be a figure of pity either.
The aforementioned Sid is Alex’s stoner buddy who wears this inane chilled out grin for the full movie. He’s the primary comic relief, saying the stupid thing and breaking down what could be some really sombre moments. The gravitas of the situation is still there, but he helps to move things on and keep the tone of the movie light and from descending into a weepie. There is one moment in the film where Sid’s relaxed persona slips a bit and the natural smile becomes forced; a mask hiding his own pain. It’s actually a lovely moment and it’s in these little things that the movie stands out.
One of the most understated performances I must highlight is by Amara Miller who plays the ten year old Scottie. The news of the affair, and of her mother’s impending death when they find out the coma is permanent is hidden from her, so she plods on unaware, just being a regular kid, which I’d imagine is harder to do in a movie than it sounds. When they do finally break the news to her, the moment is sweet and tender and genuinely heart breaking. The tears in her eyes are completely genuine as is her crestfallen face. If this doesn’t make you feel for her, then you must be utterly devoid of soul.
Set against a backdrop of Hawaii’s gorgeous islands, the movie is partly an ode to the islands themselves. There is a sub-plot around how Mike is the trustee of an unspoiled area of an island and must make a decision with his family to sell it, but it’s largely fluff and I think stands as more of an excuse to show lots of wonderful footage of the islands and beaches. The movie does actually start with a short monologue about how it’s not all sun and surfing in Hawaii, but that’s largely ignored as the scenery continually shows how nice it looks even when the cinematography is showing wide angle city shots instead of beaches.
The Descendants is directed by Alexander Payne who also directed Sideways and About Schmidt, and although I haven’t seen either of those, I’m assured if you have you will know what to expect in terms of style and pace. I enjoyed this film, though as I say more in retrospect than during it, but I’d definitely recommend it. It’s all about performance rather than plot and it makes for a very interesting couple of hours.