The Descendants - Cinema Review

'like a company culling employees, the family are restructuring; choosing which new members to accept and discovering how to cut out those in the process of departing or who were never really there to begin with'

Last year an American Indie film called Cold Weather sneaked out into UK cinemas and then subsequently on to DVD. Cold Weather had a few notable problems but also recognised one of the key rules of low-budget film-making: do the simple things right. One of the simple things that Cold Weather did brilliantly was to focus on a familial relationship - in that case, a brother and a sister - and develop it extremely well, better than probably any other on screen brother/sister relationship of the past few years.

Alexander Payne's The Descendants, though an Indie which features megastar George Clooney, is still an Indie - distributed by Fox Searchlight - and, as such, it is still a film that needs to focus on the simple things to succeed. What luck then that director Alexander Payne produces a film which, like Cold Weather, gets several familial relationships spot on.

Taking the title as the cue, it is only fair to start with the kids. I've seen very few kids in real life who are the grim, 100% stereotypes, Hollywood wants us to believe exist; the bullies, the reprobates, the drug addicts, the tearaways. In general, these aren't identifiable personality traits that can be spotted on every street corner between here and Hawaii. What is much more common is finding these elements - and the positive personality types - muddled together in a complicated melange of growing pains, world understanding and conflicting emotions. Payne knows this and his film gets it spot on.

Elder daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) is introduced to us drunk. There are suggestions she was formerly involved in drugs. She has previously had a significant argument with her now-comatose mother and she swears profusely at her uncertain father, Matt (Clooney). But equally, she looks to him for support, albeit reluctantly at first, she joins him on his journey and she provides a pillar for youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller). Her relationship with friend Sid (Nick Krause) is never suggested to be anything other than warm and a later conversation between Sid and Matt suggests that the support taking place is ultimately more symbiotic than Alex first presents it to be.

At its core, The Descendants is a film about a family readjusting to new roles. They are, like a company culling employees, restructuring; choosing which new members to accept and discovering how to cut out those in the process of departing or who were never really there to begin with. Without the simple things - the relationships - none of this works.

Of course, it also doesn't work without fantastic performances. Clooney, Oscar nomination now in tow, will rightly get a sparkling amount of attention but spare a thought for Woodley who, in another year, with better support from the distributor, should have walked away with at least a supporting nomination. Her performance is layered, demanding and fully commmitted, a welcome world away from one of Hollywood's typical teens. Krause is there as comic relief but performs well and welcome cameo appearances from Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer prove to be rather special.

Payne may perhaps here lose a scathing edge in his scripting but he is also gaining refinement and an increasing tendency to brave the waters of ambiguity, only losing his cool with the ten minutes of narration which kick the whole thing off. Excuse them and stay with it. This is familiarly focused film-making without the lineage of clich├ęs the sub-genre usual tows in to play.

Look further...

'The islands of Hawaii do a good job themselves of winning over the viewer, with their skies, stormy and sunny by turn, those white beaches and palm trees, the proud and strong local Hawaiians, the blue rough seas, its mixed cultural history, the ancestors, the descendants and the sounds of surf and song' - Movie Brit


  1. I feel like just copying and pasting every paragraph into my comment and then typing an "amen" after each one. What a brilliantly written review, man. Well done.

    And, of course, I give massive bonus points for the "Cold Weather" reference.

    1. High praise indeed, thank you kindly and yes, rather thought you might spot and like the mention of Cold Weather. Like The Descendants the more I think about the film.

  2. Good review. Just been to see it and you get it spot on. I liked the development of the two daughters' characters and Sid grew on me as the film unfolded.

    1. Definitely think that's the point with Sid: he's an honorary Descendant but at the start you're clearly not meant to like him. The scene late on when Sid and Alex defend Matt in the hospital room was tear-inducing and the conversation between Matt and Sid I still think is a big turning point. No doubt he turns into an important character. I love this more and more the more I think about it. Payne is fantastic film-maker.