Some films enthrall audiences by how big it is. Big action (think the Bond series), big effects (a la Marvel superheroes) or big drama (12 Years A Slave or Blue Jasmine) that revolve around explosions, gunfire, multi-million dollar FX teams and larger-than-life performances that leave the audiences themselves feeling drained.
But once in a while, along comes a movie that despite lacking any of the aforementioned three features, touches something deep and private in us and we fall in love with it.
Matt King, an estate lawyer in Hawaii, is faced with the pressure of selling off a pristine piece of virgin land that belongs to his family trust, his family having owned the land for generations and more. But while he’s deciding, his adventurous wife has a boating accident and slips into a irreversible coma. He now has to pull the plug on his comatose wife, sell off his family legacy and raise two daughter, Alex and Scottie, 17 and 10 respectively. Oh and it gets worse: his wife was in love with another man.
This is a deeply poignant film. In a thoughtful, subdued and reserved way. Watching Matt quietly handle everything, relying on his elder daughter’s rebellious daring and female sensibility is like watching two best friends at work. They play off each other’s strengths and fall back on each other. Alex steps up in front of Scottie and Matt deals with the land and the hospital. Formely estranged, the quiet dynamic between the father-daughter duo is gives the film its beautiful, insightful feeling. The mother’s boating accident had unified our previously estranged duo in a dual conspiracy: to soften the blow for Scottie and find out who Matt’s wife was cheating on him with.
George Clooney and Shailene Woodley give, perhaps, their most mature performances to date. As a father struggling to keep his family intact while simultaneously working on his personal anguish and emotion, there’s a lot of room for George Clooney to go off the deep end into the overdramatized trope of bitter, distant and, quiet and angry father but he doesn’t. He lends the role a warmth and humility that make the performance that much more fragile and noteworthy. There are undercurrents of something about to break in every scene he grits his teeth and soldiers and when he finally breaks down, it’s as bit as tear-jerking as you’d expect.
Woodley, in a her film debut, is impressive to say the least. She is a troubled teen, out drinking on school nights and when her father drags her home, she’s every bit as defiant and rebellious as you’d expect her to be. But when she hears the news, she breaks down and from there onwards, takes on one of the most pensive performances ever. She becomes a “mother” figure for her sister, admonishing her for bad friends and behavior even when their father doesn’t. You can tell she’s doing it on purpose, with supreme effort because that’s not who she is and that’s what makes it that much more believable. This rebellious teen didn’t change overnight, but is trying to and that’s beautiful.
The Descendants is a thoughtful, poignant movie about family and loss. It’s as hopeful as it is sad and moving. The lush setting of Hawaii is perhaps perfect to this story, quietly rebelling against the idea of eternal and perpetual paradise. With a great soundtrack, earmarked by typical Hawaiian ukuleles, this movie is a beautiful look into tragedy in paradise.