Fine performances make ‘Descendants’ a touching tale

Mor­tal­ity isn’t one of my fa­vor­ite sub­jects, but thank­fully The Des­cend­ants in­jects quite a bit of hu­mor in the mor­ose tale of life, love and death.

Al­ex­an­der Payne, dir­ect­or of Side­ways and About Schmidt, is be­com­ing known for his so-called dram­ed­ies (dra­mat­ic com­ed­ies). The Des­cend­ants is set in Hawaii (some­where many dream of re­tir­ing to), but Payne’s movie is quick to point out that a pretty place is not al­ways para­dise for its res­id­ents.

The Des­cend­ants will likely bring an­oth­er Oscar nom­in­a­tion for George Clooney, who seems to ef­fort­lessly be­come Matt King, a hus­band and fath­er cop­ing with his wife in a coma after a boat­ing ac­ci­dent in Waikiki. Clooney has a knack for los­ing him­self in his roles, such as in Mi­chael Clayton and Up in the Air. He once again brings something dif­fer­ent and unique to The Des­cend­ants.

Matt, a wealthy real es­tate law­yer, tells the audi­ence that he’s al­ways been the “backup par­ent.” With his wife Eliza­beth un­likely to wake up from her coma, Matt is forced to step up and be a real par­ent to teen­age daugh­ter Al­ex­an­dra (Shai­lene Wood­ley) and young­er daugh­ter Scot­tie (Am­ara Miller). Matt, a nat­ive Hawaii­an with ties to Hawaii­an roy­alty, also is deal­ing with a de­cision to sell his fam­ily land that has been handed down for gen­er­a­tions. As an aside, it’s funny to note that the daily ward­robe of some of Hawaii’s smartest minds con­sists of Hawaii­an shirts, shorts and flip-flops.

There is one par­tic­u­larly big rev­el­a­tion along the way, and it changes the way Matt feels about his co­matose wife. This rev­el­a­tion sends him and his daugh­ters on a search for real es­tate agent Bri­an Speer (Mat­thew Lil­liard in a sur­pris­ingly ser­i­ous role) to an­swer some ques­tions. 

The Des­cend­ants is def­in­itely a break­out role for Shai­lene Wood­ley (from The Secret Life of the Amer­ic­an Teen­ager TV show), whose angst-rid­den teen­ager is por­trayed with nice fric­tion against Clooney’s ab­sent­ee-fath­er per­sona. I’d even say Wood­ley is de­serving of a sup­port­ing-act­or nom­in­a­tion at awards time.

The young Am­ara Miller does well for her first role as the re­bel­li­ous child left in the dark while fear­ing that her sleep­ing moth­er isn’t go­ing to wake up.

The best thing about The Des­cend­ents is the real­ness of it all. All of the char­ac­ters are flawed, which gives them depth. There is not just one mem­or­able mo­ment, but many. Many scenes feel “real,” such as when Matt tells his wife’s par­ents that he will be pulling the plug (as per her wishes), when Eliza­beth’s par­ents tell her good­bye, and a mo­ment of bond­ing between Matt and Al­ex­an­dra’s boy­friend Sid (Nick Krause). The bond­ing scene is par­tic­u­larly not­able be­cause, un­til that point, Sid ba­sic­ally had been provid­ing most of the com­ic re­lief, but he be­comes a three-di­men­sion­al char­ac­ter.

There are lots of emo­tion­al, tug-at-your-heartstrings mo­ments, but I nev­er felt like Payne goes for the jug­u­lar the way some movies about death would. You may or may not need the Kleenex.

The Des­cend­ants isn’t a typ­ic­al Hol­ly­wood hap­pily-ever-after story, but it’s worth see­ing for the fant­ast­ic per­form­ances. ••

Movie Grade: B+

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