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The Descendants

- Aloha heeeey... you were cheating on me? - ★★★★½

originally published in November 2011

Y’know it’s not a lot of fun heading to the cinema knowing you’re going to see a “great” film that’s almost certain to be oscar-nominated. When a serious adult drama is showing up in all those “Potential Best Picture” lists it means you can set yourself up for a disappointing fall.

Now of course you can get something like the pleasantly surprisingly King’s Speech, which turned out to be well-deserving of all the praise that was sent its way. Or you end up with The Reader, Kate Winslet’s second Oscar-bait holocaust film, which was hardly deserving of the plaudits back in 2009 considering it wasn’t even her best picture released that winter (Revolutionary Road takes that honour).

But anyway, thank heavens then that the 2012-oscar-buzz-ahoy Descendants belongs firmly in the former camp.

Alexander Payne’s fourth major feature film (after a solid run of Election, About Schmidt and Sideways) comes after seven years away from our consciousness. Apparently a messy divorce and a little soul-searching has taken place in the interim – is he living one of his own movies?

The Descendants tells the story of George Clooney’s Matt King, the sole trustee of a huge plot of land on Hawaii’s Kauai island. Due to a change in planning law he is being forced to make a decision on its future, while simultaneously dealing with the fall-out from his wife’s boating accident. I’m not ruining anything – seriously it’s in the trailer – by saying it transpires his wife won’t wake up from her coma, and that she was cheating on him right up until her accident.

As Matt’s definition of family life is slowly re-defined over the next two hours, we see Clooney taking on the most subtle and sensitive role that I remember him playing. You forget you’re watching George Clooney the movie star, the answer-to-anything governor in Ides of March, the suave and sophisticated Danny Ocean, the problem-solver Michael Clayton. It’s a performance we’re going to be hearing a lot about in the next few months, but it’s worthy of the buzz. While I’d still give my vote to Michael’s Shannon’s Curtis LaForche in Take Shelter, Clooney is running a close second.

- You're seriously telling me we don't get our oscar nominations until January? Seriozly?!

The other two stars of the show here are Matt’s eldest daughter Alex, played by Shailene Woodley, and weirdly enough – the islands of Hawaii. Woodley is the 20-year-old star of the TV series The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and it’s great seeing an unknown continually take you by surprise like this. Her first big moment involves her screaming underwater –

It was written in the script as, She goes underwater and distorts her face, and I saw that as, She goes underwater and loses her shit… She was able to be vulnerable for the first time without anyone seeing.
via nymag

It’s a great scene and likely to show up in all those montages of the year that always get thrown up on youtube around Christmas.

The only real exposure I’ve had to Hawaii is recent years was from watching LOST for six years or speedily flicking past the Hawaii Five-0 reboot. But after watching The Descendants you really get a great sense for the islands as a place. The story could probably have been written to be set anywhere but to place this tale of worry and stress in what a lot of the western world considers to be paradise was an inspired move by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the author of the novel on which the screenplay was based.

There are a few minor gripes, while it’s all flawlessly executed, things do play out quite predictably and some people may wince at how neatly everything ties together in the end. But as with About Schmidt and Sideways, it’s not really the destination that we’re bothered with, it’s all about how we get there.

Alexander Payne / Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash / Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Nick Krause, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Judy Greer & Amara Miller / 115 min / Drama, Comedy / Release: 18 November 2011 (US/Canada), 27 January 2011 (Irl/UK)