“Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself.”
This line pretty much sums up the entire philosophy of Matt King (George Clooney), a middle-aged man in crisis. His wife is in a coma after hitting her head in a boating accident, his 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is acting out, and 17-year-old daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) is all too aware how absent her father has been over the course of their lives. Then, just to make the whole matter worse, Alex reveals to her father that his wife was having an affair before the accident.
The Descendants is the long awaited return from Alexander Payne, director of Oscar Winning Sideways (for best adapted screenplay, which he also co-wrote), and deals with themes of the family, uncertainty, and reconnection in the same way as many Indie films of the same ilk. Infused with a degree of honesty that births humour from a bad situation and everyday occurrences, it rings much like Win Win or Little Miss Sunshine in its portrayal of a patriarch struggling with the world he has built for himself.
It’s this honesty that really makes the film shine and coupled with the delicate intimacy that Payne directs the film with, it feels like you’re taking the journey with them. Every character turn and plot twist reveals something new and draws in your sympathies - even with Alex’s stereotypical douchebag surfer friend, Sid, who tags along for her moral support. This is screenwriting at its best and I would be happy if it picks up Payne’s second Oscar for best adapted screenplay (but the prize will probably go to Moneyball, which admittedly, I haven’t seen so I shouldn’t really be judging).
However, it’s not just great writing that make the characters come to life. The performances by the entire cast are great - especially from the younger members. Scottie has a great naivety as she struggles to understand why the people around her are acting so weird, Alex is brash and outspoken whilst hiding her emotions to protect her little sister and Sid turns out to be much more than the 2 dimensional ‘surfer dude’ we’re introduced to. And of course there is Clooney’s master class in restrained acting - bettered this (Oscar) year only by Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - but whether you believe Clooney as a struggling family man will affect whether you believe entirely in his character. But what makes the performances stand out is that they feel completely real.
The realism of the film turns it into a piece of work that doesn’t romanticise everything. There isn’t a sweeping orchestral score dictating our emotions (the music used is wonderful, but I’ll let you see it and find out for yourself), there aren’t explosions of emotions to show how distraught the characters are, the cinematography is beautiful without being like a postcard tour of Hawaii and its neighbouring islands and the comedy all comes from very real dialogue instead of big set piece jokes and slapstick. Yet it isn’t an entirely realistic film in that it depicts real life as we live it, the realism instead is embedded deeper in the subtext and comes about as something that all films seek to explore - truth.
A classic film reveals or explores a particular truth about the human condition (even blockbusters such as Jurassic Park - man’s futile desire to play God/control life), which is why they become timeless. And whether The Descendants becomes a commercial smash hit or not, it will stand the test of time because its honest and real portrayal of a father under pressure explores something we should all think about - what will our descendant generations inherit, both physically and morally, from us?