Matt King (George Clooney) is a successful Hawaiian lawyer with a popular, outgoing wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), and two spirited daughters: 17-year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller). He is the last remaining Trustee for a large parcel of unspoilt waterside family land, which some of his cousins want to sell. His life changes when his wife is critically injured in a boat race. As her life hangs in the balance, his daughter Alexandra tells him that her mother has been unfaithful to him. Matt sets out to track down her lover.
Review by Louise Keller:
Like the waves on the beautiful Hawaiian beaches, our emotions rise and fall in this splendid, emotionally rich drama in which laughter and tears are balanced on the precarious surfboard of life. Director Alexander Payne excels at capturing the bitter sweet nature of emotions and events (like he did in his 2009 smash hit Sideways starring Paul Giamatti), and does so again to perfection in his adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel about a man at the crossroads with everything to lose. Although the topics canvassed are deadly serious, a healthy dose of humour plays out, evolving naturally from the juxtaposition of the tragic with the ridiculous. One of the best films of the year, this is George Clooney at his most emotionally vulnerable.
The ever-versatile and talented Clooney plays a man who thinks he is in control of his life, until he discovers he is in control of nothing when it comes to the things that really matter. It's a film that defies categorisation; it's a family drama, a road movie and a coming of age story that often plays out like a comedy of errors.
After an establishing opening scene, we get a clear picture of the emotional state of Matt King (Clooney), who has a deep connection to Hawaii through his native royal ancestry Hawaiian descendants. Despite its perfect weather, gorgeous beaches and idyllic lifestyle, he assures us Hawaii is not the paradise it is commonly believed to be in that it is not exempt from life's troubles. It has been 23 days since his wife's boating accident; he is almost as emotionally catatonic as his comatose wife. He compares his family to an archipelago drifting apart - describing himself the absent husband and back-up parent.
Payne brilliantly sets the tone with tragic elements layered over the glorious Hawaiian weather and scenery. A few dark clouds hover uncharacteristically - or perhaps symbolically. It is obvious from his gauche interactions with his 10 and 17 year old daughters that Matt is inexperienced when it comes to parental skills. It seems that as each new character is introduced, there is yet another revelation - and it's all bad news.
Especially memorable is the scene in which 17 year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is swimming in their leaf-filled pool. When told of her mother's prognosis, the camera shows her expression-filled face dealing with her emotions from the bottom of the pool. There's also Alexandra's 'cool dude' boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) who vocalises his inappropriate thoughts at one stage and earns a black eye. But then there is the biggest clanger of all to deal with - his wife's infidelity.
Things get worse before they get better and through the emotional chaos, clarity finds its way into Matt's life, just as the sun peeps through a cloud. Suddenly when it matters, the all important relationships find a way to miraculously work themselves out. Scenes that are confronting are all at once tragic and funny. Clooney is at his very best here, surrounded by an excellent cast. Especially impressive is Woodley as the rebellious teen that turns the corner and young Amara Miller, as 10 year old Scottie whose spontaneous reactions ring true.
Payne manages each turn in the exposition with disarming sensitivity, allowing no sentimentality or bad taste to creep in. Issues from the past, the present and the future fuse together seamlessly as all the story strands are resolved to great satisfaction. This is a special film, filled with life's truths and handled with humour and honesty. It's an unforgettable and wonderfully enjoyable experience that is thoroughly recommended.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Inter-family friction on top of marital problems and a wife on life support in hospital, pile on top of teenage daughter attitude issues to create the perfect storm for husband, father, landowner Matt King (George Clooney), in this heartfelt and sometimes heartbreaking story about love, death, duty and responsibility.
Set in Hawaii where Matt's part-indigenous family have lived for generations, the story about Matt's responsibilities as the last remaining Trustee over a huge piece of pristine beachside land intersects with the boating accident that leaves his wife in a coma. These two issues give the film its cinematic scale. But they also represent some of the toughest challenges of living as human beings.
Matt faces the agonising decision to unplug his wife's life support, when he learns she's been unfaithful - and he hears ot from his daughter. It's a confluence of bad news that tests his resolve and judgement.
Clooney portrays Matt King with just the right emotional range as the flawed husband and father; always too busy for his wife and daughters, now he is confronted with the resulting gap between them. And worse.
Both Shailene Woodley as 17 year old Alexandra and Amara Miller as 10 year old Scottie deliver marvellous, complete characterisations as the daughters - each with her own set of buried pain.
Nick Krause as Sid has a great time putting us off side when we first meet him, behaving badly, inappropriately and annoyingly ... but wait, there's more. And Robert Forster makes a welcome appearance as the girls' grandfather, who does to Sid what we all want to do at the time.
Also notable are Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer as the husband and wife with a painful connection to Elizabeth.
The film begins with a single close up of Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) speeding along on the water off a beach in Hawaii. It ends with a very different scene on a stretch of aquamarine water at another Hawaiian location. Between the two scenes, Elizabeth's (unseen) boating accident triggers a series of family ructions, both within her own family and within Matt's extended family. It is the detail of how these events unfold that sweeps us along like a surfer on one of Hawaii's famous waves.
Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election) has a talent for creating interest in his screen characters and evidently has a great way with actors. In this well adapted screenplay (from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings), there is a satisfying sense of authenticity about all the elements, from the tragic to the delightful.
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DESCENDANTS, THE (M)
CAST: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Karen Kuioka-Hironaga, Carmen Kaichi, Robert Forster, Patricia Hastie,
PRODUCER: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, Jim Burke
DIRECTOR: Alexander Payne
SCRIPT: Alexander Payne, Nat Fraxon, Jim Rash (novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Phedon Papamichael
EDITOR: Kevin Tent
MUSIC: Not credited
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Jane Ann Stewart
RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Fox Searchlight
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: January 12, 2012