Review of ‘The Descendants’

By Sarah Cox.

With Oscar fever heating up and the stars getting ready to walk the red carpet, the world is waiting to see who will take out the Academy Awards.

A strong contender  in the categories of Best Film, Best Actor and  Best Director is the film, The Descendants, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemming and directed by Alexander Payne. Starring George Clooney and Shailene Woodley, it is set in Hawaii and portrays an everyday, modern family living through the throes of the teenage and midlife years. Alexandra, the 17-year-old daughter, played by Woodley, has against her will, been taken out of college to return home and visit her mother who lies in hospital in a coma following a waterskiing accident. Her workaholic, distant father, Matt King, played by Clooney, is ignorant of the fact her mother had been having an affair just prior to the accident. Left to cope emotionally with growing up on her own, Alexandra, at the outset of the film, is rebellious and attention seeking. She is caught by her father late at night underage drinking outside the college grounds.

What makes this film worth viewing is the evolving relationship Alexandra has with her father Matt put in the context of the pressure she experiences to conform with her peers. As they come to terms with the mother’s impending passing and the journey they undertake to discover who the mother’s lover is, Alexandra changes from being a rude, opinionated teenager to a daughter who allows her father to parent her again. Previously ignored by both parents who were consumed with their own lives, she assumes the typical role of the try hard teen at college. When she returns home and has to face up to the tragic news that her mother is dying, this hard shell exterior is peeled away and her vulnerability and honesty is revealed. Her relationship with her father changes to be more one of love and support in the face of the family crisis. It is this portrayal of the human frailty in family life that makes this film quietly powerful.

Alexander Payne typically portrays people with flaws in his movies who are having some crisis. He said he made this film because he wanted to make it in the beautiful setting of Hawaii. Two  anchoring points in the film he thought resonated are, when the father Matt decides to find his wife’s lover and tell him the wife is dying. Though he feels that he wants to kill the lover, out of an act of love he  informs him. Also when the wife of the lover shows up at the hospital to the dying mother’s bedside, she tells the wife her husband was too cowardly to turn up but out of an act of love she feels that didn’t seem right so she goes herself. Human goodness overpowers the dysfunction.

Whilst The Descendants is a very good film, I personally did not find George Clooney entirely convincing as the responsible Dad (he was much better as the corrupt politician in The Ides of March). I thought Woodley’s portrayal as the daughter was a fine performance. Do you agree?

For a preview of the film see

In an interview, Shailene Woodley discusses the pressure placed on teenagers by our consumer society to act grown up and beyond their years – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0UD-CPeg18.


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