George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller in THE DESCENDANTS. (SUPPLIED)
By Bernie Jablonski
I have a cellophane-wrapped DVD copy of SIDEWAYS, directed by Alexander Payne, but I have never opened it up and watched it. It is on my ever-increasing list. I have, though, seen his high school horror story ELECTION, and it is one of my favorite movies. The characters there follow their instincts or their passions, and land themselves in all kinds of trouble. They are recognizable as people, even as we are thunderstruck at their stupidity and duplicity. You are drawn not only to the protagonist, but to the antagonist as well, making you bask in a kind of tingly ambivalence.
Who is the bad guy of THE DESCENDANTS? Not that easy to answer. In Payne’s movie, characters have to respond to each other in totally unexpected ways, due to a horrible thing that happens. The movie starts with a shot of a woman piloting a speedboat, with a look of exultation on her face because she knows she has crossed the threshold of fear she thinks she can usually tolerate. We know something bad is going to happen, but we are stalled from fully knowing it by the subsequent narration of lawyer Matt King (George Clooney, at his most realistically vulnerable). He tells us about Honolulu, where he lives, and how he hears people on the Mainland speak of their desire to also live in Paradise. We then see, as he speaks, shots of the slums of Honolulu, poor kids of Honolulu, uninspired housing units in Honolulu and Matt marvels at how these people believe that there are no problems in Hawaii, as if its inhabitants are “immune to life.”
We next see the two things that Matt is in the process of letting go. First he reveals that he is descended from six generations of a family that has always lived on the Big Island, meaning that he, himself, is part Hawaiian, as his grandfather several generations back married a descendant of one of King Kamehameha’s wives. His family (and we see his many cousins) own the last tract of pristine, virgin land in Hawaii, and Matt, as sole trustee of the estate, has to make the decision on whether to sell the land (which would make the cousins happy, because they would be extremely rich), or to not sell it, which would make the islanders happy, because there would be no large-scale development.
The second thing deals with what happened to his wife, Elizabeth. As she was speeding along, she was thrown out of the boat during a sharp turn, and hit her head hard. This produced a coma, and there is hope that she’ll wake up, and Matt is soon facing another decision (don’t worry- the movie isn’t really about whether or not she survives). The two of them have gotten distant over the past year with Matt going on a lot of business trips, and when he’s in the hospital, wildly optimistic (like the rest of the family) that she is going to wake up, he says to his comatose wife that he is ready to talk, he is ready to change…if she would just wake up.
He doesn’t know what to do with his two daughters, because he is the “backup parent, the understudy.” One of them, his younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is acting out, and his eldest, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who has been sent away to a strictly institutionalized boarding school because of her problems with drugs and alcohol, is in a very sorry state when her father comes to take her home. After she recoversfrom her binge the next day, her father tells her that she’s going to need to accompany him as he informs all the relatives about what’s going on. Alex’s boyfriend, a doofus named Sid (Nick Krause) comes along too.
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As soon as Matt carries his daughter’s drunken into her room and lays her on her bed, the movie begins this gentle progression where both the daughters, and even Sid, become sympathetic with Matt and accompany him on journeys of discovery and with purpose that he’d rather not go on. Because Elizabeth has secrets, the type of secret that everyone knows except the person closest to the source of the secret.
This long section of the movie is wonderful, as Alex becomes a real partner to her father, Scottie begins to see the light of the situation, and even Sid becomes coherent enough to offer advice to Matt, when he desperately asks for it. The movie comes to a satisfying conclusion- which is not to say that everything works out.
I cry fairly frequently at the movies, but not for the reason you think. When I see something that strikes me, in my world, as being true, or honest, as in a scene or performance, I tear up. In this movie, I was almost weeping openly in several spots. See them and savor them: The scenes where Matt, Alex, Scottie and a rather surprising character share their anger with Matt’s wife; the scene where Matt discovers his wife’s secret; the scenes where Matt talks with Cousin Hugh (played by that sly devil Beau Bridges); the scenes where Matt announces both major decisions……which delighted me in the same way (more so )that the last scene of the (supposed) final episode of LAW AND ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT did. There are no endings. Life continues. I was really trying to avoid this cliché, but at the packed matinee show that I saw, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.
THE DESCENDANTS, it must be said, is not a depressing movie, nor a schmaltz-fest, but is one that deals with truths. It is also very funny, while at the same time avoiding clichés and stereotypes. Sid could have been an obvious “comic relief” character, but no, we really, honestly believe he’s that clueless. In that wonderful scene with Matt, we hear him give straightforward answers, and we see what has happened in his own life. Scottie could have been an obnoxious, how-could-she-possibly-be-that-smart-for-her-age little brat (like the kid in THE BLIND SIDE- sorry), but young Miller at times allows the innocent, frightened child, whose raw humor comes out as a self-protective mechanism, to come through. George Clooney could have let a lot of his actions descend into farcical buffoonery to emphasize the situation he’s caught in, but he never does. There are two scenes where he’s running, for his life, it seems, and the close-up of his face is funny, but it also shows his steadfast determination to get where he’s going, possibly to get the truth behind another horrifying discovery.
George Clooney has never played a character this flawed and exposed, and it’s the best thing he’s done. Just last month I was talking about him in THE IDES OF MARCH, with his portrait of a politician that seems honest but does have that protective aura about him- none of that here. A close second to his performance here would be UP IN THE AIR, but without the self-confidence. And I’m not sure that I’m going to start watching THE SECRET LIFE OF AN AMERICAN TEENAGER, but Shailene Woodley is quite the revelation to me. Alex starts off in sad disrepair, but winds up bonding with and inspiring Clooney’s character, to the point of being his partner-in-crime, to exaggerate a bit. Not a false performance here. I hope she does a lot of good film work, my same hope for Elizabeth Olsen.
Payne does what a good director does best: He creates believable characters with believable relationships in a believable setting. He’s only made about a half-dozen feature length theatrical movies, with great spaces of time in between each one (like Terrence Malick or Stanley Kubrick) but he does seem to get all the notes in the right place. Much discussion has been heard about this movie at the Academy Awards (for Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay….) so see it, and judge. It’s the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.
Bernie Jablonski teaches Mass Media and Film Study in the Fine Arts Department at Marian Catholic High School.