The Descendants

Eight years on from Sideways, director Alexander Payne returns with The Descendants, a quiet story about a family tragedy that is also an uplifting character comedy. Payne has always been able to inject his identifiably flawed, ordinary Joe characters with unexpected darts of humour and heart but his unique knack of subtly shifting moods and maintaining a complicated tone has never been more skilfully applied. Nominated for a host of Oscars at this month’s ceremony, this is a wonderful film, beautifully acted and delicately presented, as funny as it is moving.

Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ 2007 novel by Payne and comedy writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rush, the story unfolds over the course of a week in Hawaii, where busy lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) is busy deciding the fate of a huge tract of land he inherited from his founding-father ancestors. As the head of a trust established to maintain the unspoiled paradise, now worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Matt has to decide whether to sell the land to competing developers looking to build a resort and divide the fortune that accrues among a gaggle of distant cousins. A self-confessed workaholic, Matt hasn’t been much of a father to his two young daughters, precocious ten year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and tear-away teenager Alex (Shailene Woodley). When his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) falls off a speedboat and hits her head, lapsing into a coma, Matthew must try to find a way to keep his family together as they face up to an accidental tragedy.

Beset on all sides, Matthew’s problems are compounded when his daughter, who despises him for sending her to a boarding school, insists on bringing her maddeningly laid-back boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) along wherever they go. At the same time, his gruff father-in-law (Robert Forster) directs his grief at his daughter’s bleak prognosis towards Matthew, blaming his frugality for her accident. As Matt prevaricates over his decision to sell the land, he meets Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), whose head-nodding affability hides a determination to cash in on the family fortune.

Everybody in the film might carry an aloha smile and wear a flowery short-sleeved shirt, but that doesn’t make them easy to classify as simple, backwater characters. “Don’t be fooled by appearances,” Clooney intones in a witty voice-over, “In Hawaii some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen.” Emotionally and financially, there is a lot at stake in The Descendants, which gradually crystallizes into a story about how hard it is to close the gap with family and the land when some vital connection is broken. Threading his way with extraordinary facility through Matt’s legal, family and emotional troubles, Payne plays drama against comedy and light against shade, without ever forcing his hand, until the moment that Matt realises how all his problems have coiled together in a clump.

As he has done throughout his career, Payne balances the fallout from his dramatic revelations with brilliant darts of sharply chiselled humour. There are funny lines, and lots of them, but Payne’s real talents lie in his character’s silences, glances and gestures. Matt’s response to his daughter dropping a bombshell on his marriage is to struggle into a pair of ill-fitting sandals and flip-flop his way over to his neighbours house in a fog of sweat, with Payne’s camera following him every drenched step of the way. Never more lively or sympathetic, Clooney carries the film with a beautifully underplayed performance. Onscreen nearly the entire time, and adding a sometimes bitter voice-over, he never puts a foot wrong, except on purpose. Opposite him, and similarly essential to the film’s success, Woodley transforms convincingly from a callow girl unable to see beyond her own issues into her father’s stalwart defender, aiding and abetting him as he tries to figure everything out.

Payne’s unfussy approach gives a believably lived-in atmosphere to a place we might only know from postcards, contrasting the sumptuous landscape with images of traffic-filled highways and sprays of high-rise spreading up a bright green mountainside. The soulful soundtrack of Hawaiian songs from Hawaiian musicians is also essential to the mood, alternately joyful and subdued.

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