The Descendants (2011)

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The Descendants

Occasionally you sit down to a film with no expectations and from as little as a minute into the film you know you’re going to love it. So was the case with The Descendants.

From the opening narration in which he explains that living in paradise doesn’t necessarily mean that life is paradise, George Clooney is captivating in the role of Matt King, a descendant of one of Hawaii’s first white land-owning families.

Matt’s extended family, which is spread across the Hawaii islands, has a decision to make as to whether to sell a large plot of highly desirable beachfront virgin forest on Kauai to developers, who will inevitably open it up for tourist development.

Most of the family have already made their mind up. To them it’s a no-brainer - the sale will make them all rich. However, as the sole trustee of the land, Matt has the ultimate responsibility to make the final decision - a decision that forces him to consider the opposing views of his family and the islanders who want the land to remain unspoilt. This is all at the same time as facing a personal crisis.

At the beginning of the film we see that Matt’s wife is involved in a water skiing accident which puts her in a coma. This forces Matt to effectively become a single parent to his two daughters, one of whom is the teenager Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who returns from boarding school with a bad attitude.

The bad attitude is borne out of resentment; resentment for her father who up until then has always put his business before his family, and resentment for her mother who, unbeknownst to Matt, has been having an affair with another man.

Rocked by his wife’s accident, Matt’s world comes crashing down once again when Alexandra blurts out the truth about his wife. This devastating, dramatic moment for the main character actually sets the stage for one of the films funniest scenes, as George Clooney, looking completely un-cool in high-waisted khaki shorts and Hawaiian shirt, slips on a pair of thongs (flip-flops) and runs down the mountain to challenge the friends of his wife who must have known about the affair. If you’ve ever attempted to run in thongs you can imagine how ungainly this looks.

If I tell you that The Descendants is written and directed by Alexander Payne, who previously wrote and directed another favourite of mine - Sideways, you may know that you’re not just getting a moving, family drama. A wonderful black humour ripples throughout this movie, at times blending tragedy and hilarity within the same scene.

The bulk of the story follows Matt moving around the Hawaii islands attempting to track down his wife’s lover, at the same time as trying to deal with his unruly daughter and her brain-dead friend Sid, who is the source for many of the laughs throughout the film. The carefully crafted script ensures that the business, family and emotional troubles are tied together expertly in the final scenes.

The movie is scored throughout with beautiful, soft, Hawaiian music - the kind of music you want to listen to whilst sat at a beach bar on a tropical paradise island watching the sun descend over the horizon.

After watching a lot of films lately which were, frankly, disappointing, it was a joy to sit down to something which gripped me from beginning to end. George Clooney fully deserves his Oscar nomination for this film.