I always get excited when the holidays show up. Sure there’s turkey at Thanksgiving and presents at Christmas but I enjoy an oft-forgotten element of the holiday months: Oscar movies! Take the gifts and wrapping, I’ll settle for the best films of the year with acting performances and stories that make me forget the dreck I’ve sat through the other ten months of the year. The first true Oscar contender I’ve seen is Alexander Payne’s poignantly sweet film The Descendants. The film is bitingly funny with a game-changing performance from George Clooney. I’m not sure if the movie will be on the list of films for Best Picture but I’d start placing bets on Clooney for Best Actor.
Matt King (Clooney) is trying to figure out what to do after his wife Elizabeth is in a coma after a boating accident. When he receives the news that she won’t get better he gathers his two daughters together to tell friends and family. As if it couldn’t get any worse his older daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) tells him Elizabeth has been cheating on him and was planning to leave with. With a looming land deal casting a gloom over everything, Matt and his daughters go on a vacation to cope and also confront Elizabeth’s lover.
For a film that has so many depressing elements to it, Payne and co-screenwriter Nat Faxon craft a film with a lot of humor. The characters talk genuinely about the issues at hand, and also give audiences a glimpse at how everyone copes with hostility. The opening scene in particular focuses on Matt’s youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) getting in trouble for sending a fellow classmate harassing text messages. The mother of the child takes her anger out on Matt and isn’t satisfied with Scottie’s apology despite the fact her own kid doesn’t care. It opens up the film’s themes of yearning to blame someone for bad things, forgiveness and what happens when you don’t get the apology you feel you deserve.
The chemistry between Matt and his daughters is what everything swirls around. You don’t see Matt and Elizabeth together before the accident. You see Elizabeth having a good time just before the accident and the rest of the film she spends in the coma. Audiences don’t see how the marriage crumbled, we follow Matt going through the stages of grief and trying to understand truly how he failed to keep everything together. Throughout the film characters are blaming him for how Elizabeth is, especially her father played by Robert Forster, but in the end Matt has to forgive himself and move on. Clooney’s performance is sweet, vulnerable, and fearless as he acts his age. Gone are the Hollywood good looks as Clooney settles for little makeup and gray hairs to emphasize his everyman persona. Matt is a character trying to hold everything in, who doesn’t want to get angry even when he hears how duplicitous his wife was. He enjoys his privacy and doesn’t want to air his dirty laundry in public.
Complimenting Clooney are the two young girls playing his children. This is a star-making performance for Shailene Woodley as Alexandra. She’s gorgeous to be sure, but she’s also holding back as much anger as Matt. Woodley plays the character like a typical teenage badass who curses like a sailor but it’s all a defense mechanism. Alex has been hurt by her mother and acts out as a means of rebellion and attention from her father. The young actress is charming and hilarious, especially when she confronts the man her mother is cheating with. A simple “this is him” conveys disgust, surprise, and a hint of sadness. Woodley is more than worthy of the accolades she’s receiving. Alongside her is young Amara Miller who is so sweet and adorable as Scottie, the one everyone tries to protect. The comic relief comes from Nick Krause as Alex’s friend Sid who doesn’t say the right thing but holds a lot in common with Matt.
Aside from the themes of forgiveness is Payne’s sense of family. All his characters in his films come from dysfunctional or absent families but here he focuses on the sense of history that comes with family. Matt is set to make a big business deal to sell his family’s land and while the family is heavily divided by distance, they all seem to come together to discuss how much money they’re going to get. By the end Matt’s decision doesn’t matter as he says since “if you sue me it’ll just make us closer.” The sense of generations, roots, all of that culminates in a beautiful montage of family photos and the locale of Hawaii, a place rife with turmoil and history is a beautiful compliment to the chaos of the King family.
This is my second Payne film and I love Election a bit more (the dark humor gets me every time) but The Descendents is a slow, thought-provoking film that will make you laugh and cry. I’m still not sure how I feel about Payne’s presentation of women as this film continues the trend of women who are the downfall of men and their emasculation (if Sideways contradicts this let me know), but I loved the movie. The two hour runtime moves like a cool Hawaiian breeze and Clooney left me saying “Wow.” Look for this to get a slew of awards consideration as the year closes.
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.