"The Descendants"

"The Descendants," a film directed by Alexander Payne ("Sideways"), is based on a memoir by Kaui Hart Hemmings (who plays the part of King's secretary, Noe). Set on the Hawaiian Islands, it features George Clooney as Matt King with Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller as his daughters, Alexandra and Scottie.  The film is about a family's struggle to come to terms with the possibility of the death of the mother who lies in a coma in the hospital after suffering a boating accident.  Matt is a successful attorney in Honolulu and the executor of acres of beachfront property on Kauai, once owned by his great-great grandmother who was a descendant of Queen Kamehameha.  His great-great-grandfather, an Englishman, broke ranks and married her.  Native Hawaiian blood runs thick in his and his daughters' veins.  Matt's wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie in a thankless role), lies comatose in all her scenes except at the beginning when we see her water skiing over choppy waters which led to the accident leaving her near brain-dead.

 "Descendants" is a film about a family, but is not a "family" film per se.  You could take your kids to it but unless they have some smarts and awareness, they'll be bored.  There are no car chases or crashes; no zombies, guns, horrific explosions, no murders, or gross-out gory scenes, nor or there any gratuitous or graphic sex scenes.   Clooney plays a mature man with a full head of salt and pepper hair, a father of two girls whose wife-their mother-will die when she is taken off life-support as Dr. Johnston (Milt Kogan) advises. (One flaw in this otherwise intelligent film is that Payne gives us a cliché of a doctor by having Kogan speak in a smarmy voice; he is not helped by his egregious comb-over so we are not sure if Matt is to take him seriously.)   Matt struggles with how to break this news to his girls.  However, that is wife will die is not his only problem:  Another is that he's being pressured by his many cousins (Beau Bridges plays one) to sell the land to developers who want to turn it into a resort with a golf course and a multi-storey hotel.  They could become millionaires overnight.  Matt simply has to sign the papers before the developers withdraw their offer.  On top of that is a secret that Alex divulges to a clueless Matt about her mother's affair.  1950s noir actor Robert Forster does a memorable job as Elizabeth's bigoted father, Scott Thorson and Barbara L. Southern as Alice "Tutu," Thorson, her Alzheimer stricken mother.

Shailine Woodley and Amara Millier as the daughters are spot on as are each character.  They do not strike a false note throughout the film.  We see true family issues involving kids being dealt with in mixed race households.  Alex (Shailene) is seventeen, rebellious, bad-mouthed, and adventurous who insists that her dumb, but sympathetic lug of a boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause) tag along.  At first, I couldn't understand why this character had to be in the film, unless the author demanded it.  Then later, I saw that he was Clooney's foil when dealing with the girls.  Miller, as Scottie, is the most troubled about her mother's condition and acts out in school.  Also, wants to emulate her older sister, but is kept in check by both Alex and Matt, as well as Sid who keeps her amused during some rough periods. 

The photography of the paradisical Hawaii is gorgeous.  Not to the film's detriment, it could be seen as a travelogue.  However shots of its burgeoning commercial side in Honolulu and other big cities and freeways give it weight and reality.  Lately, after seeing a film, I often think I wasted my money.  I walked away from "The Descendants" feeling totally satisfied.  Clooney has never won a Best Actor Oscar, but won for Supporting Actor in "Syriana."  He should win a Best Actor award for this rôle.