The opening sequence of The Descendants, which reveals a woman’s face against the backdrop of a turquoise ocean, is one of the only scenes in the entire film without music — because music is replaced by the steady hum of a motorboat. The scene quickly segues to a series of images narrated by the voice-over of Matt King (George Clooney), who attempts to convey that the perception of the idyllic land of Hawaii is largely false, by explaining that residents of the islands — who live their whole lives on the islands, unlike tourists who are there for a short sojourn — face the same everyday obstacles in life as mainland civilians do. In short, problems of the human race are universal, even in a seeming paradise.
From that opening sequence, the tragic tone of the drama is juxtaposed with merry Hawaiian tunes played on serene ukuleles and acoustic guitars. Such is the style of director Alexander Payne, who returns after a seven-year hiatus since the release of his critically-acclaimed Sideways. The Descendants is well worth the wait.
Matt is an overworked land baron whose life is upended when his wife falls into a coma after being injured in a boating accident. After never having been fully present as a husband or father, Matt graduates from the role of “the back-up parent” to being the primary caretaker in the lives of his two daughters, the sassy 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and the understandably irritable 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). The elder adds a not-very-needed twist to the plot when she reveals to her family that her bitterness is a result of her mother’s infidelity.
The title of the film alludes to the fact that Matt is the beneficiary of an exquisite expanse of land on Kauai, a birthright passed down from his ancestry of Hawaiian royalty and white missionaries. On top of his mountain of emotional dilemmas lies the fact that he alone is entitled to make the ultimate decision of what to do with the property, and after collaborating with his cousins, it is clear that they are eager to see the property sold to a wealthy developer.
Aside from Clooney, the cast doesn’t boast any huge names, but all of the parts are acted beautifully.Woodley, who until now was probably most recognized for her starring role in the television series “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” delivers a laudable performance that rivals those of the film’s more experienced actors. In fact, some of the best scenes belong to her alone, though her natural rapport with Clooney is a treat as well.
One can argue that many films incorporate the perfect amount of both comedy and heartbreak, in addition to stirring performances by the actors. The Descendants achieves this, but also goes a step farther with an impressively raw dialogue. Every witty retort, obscenity and moment of silence is extremely believable. It should be appreciated that Payne doesn’t try to camouflage the reality of human reaction but lays it bare instead.
That being said, the inevitable, supremely emotional sequence may be slightly drawn out for some viewers’ tastes, but the final scene adds an extra touch that gives you some lead time to dry your eyes before leaving the theater, if need be.