It may feel strangely familiar to some of you, Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" allows intrinsic domestic values to surface in tandem above that unexplainable veil of serene grace guided by directorial and music credits. As we navigated through a group of mundane people interacting with one another within an ordinary story that could be replicated in real life, one of the best films of the year surprisingly emerged at the end of all that.
From Alexander Payne, the creator of the Oscar®-winning SIDEWAYS, THE DESCENDANTS is set in Hawaii and follows the unpredictable journey of an American family at a crossroads. Matt King (George Clooney), a husband and father of two girls, must re-examine his past and navigate his future when his wife is in a boating accident off Waikiki. He awkwardly attempts to repair his relationship with his daughters - 10 year-old precocious Scottie (Amara Miller) and rebellious 17 year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) - while wrestling with a decision to sell his family’s land. Handed down from Hawaiian royalty and missionaries, the Kings own some of the last priceless virgin parcels of tropical beach in the islands.
When Alexandra drops the bombshell that her mother was in the midst of a romantic fling at the time of the accident, Matt has to take a whole new look at his life, not to mention his legacy, during a week of momentous decisions. With his girls in tow, he embarks on a haphazard search for his wife’s lover. Along the way, in encounters alternately funny, troublesome and transcendent, he realizes he’s finally on course toward rebuilding his life and family.
The film began its very first scene of Matt King's wife with her final moments of bliss. There's nothing complicated about that, just pure simple joy with a smile across her face as she sped across the open waters on a motor boat.
It was her last moments looking that good before she was made to look piteously horrible for the rest of the film. In fact, we never get to hear her speak or interact with anybody. But the miracle thing was, it felt like she was everywhere in the film. No matter what each of the characters did alone or to one another, it was all about King's wife.
In a way, it felt like a 110 minutes celebration of her life.
She may be missing physically throughout the rest of the film, but her prior actions gave rise to a lot of consequential drama and dilemmas to follow (in fact, she was possibly the main reason why the film's story took place). All of those high flying emotions ran through the excellent vessels of the likes of George Clooney and the remarkable Shailene Woodley. Most of the intense feelings were delivered through these two's characters, thanks to their wonderful performance. Both equally deserve some recognition of sorts.
You might wondering if you've just found your way into a review of a melodramatic film. Well, it's not. At least not entirely. Payne had a way with heightening emotions in subtlety and humour, just like how life often dished itself on a plate to most of us. Much like how life would always be filled with complexity and simplicity, the film doesn't exactly follow a formulaic set of plot and character guidelines to render them so much more realistic than most other films could achieve.
It's simple. King found himself into more troubles and woes gradually over the span of the film. It's complex. Most of these troubles and woes had 2 sides to it. The demise of his wife brought sorrows to the family, but enhanced the relationship between King and his daughters. His late wife's affair with another man not only added strain upon her relationship with her elder daughter, but also traumatised King and that of him and his Father-in-law. This revelation also concealed a lot about herself to some before the accident, but also revealed more about how little others around her understood her.
Owning a heavy decision of responsibility on whether or not to sell a prime piece of Hawaiian land wasn't just a simple matter of dollars and profit. It also measured the amount of heritage that mattered to King and his family clan members of cousins and other relatives.
Setting the film in Hawaii was almost a perfect decision as it was itself an element of ironic contrast to the film's happenings. Most people thought of Hawaii as a land of bliss and possibly even paradise, but here it's a symbol of heritage and culture. The scenery of the sea, sand, and sun made affairs appeared to be simple and laidback when it was obvious on the contrary. There was so much going on amidst all the elements of serenity, we don't see it but we feel it vividly.
We follow every characters through (including Alexandra's "retarded" boyfriend) and sincerely feel for them.
And that's the beauty of Payne's film, allowing life's circumstances to share its consequential tale of bliss, sorrows, rage, and possibly every other unexplainable form of emotions and allow them seemingly free reign to lead the story under a great directorial helm.