Life is hard a lot of the time. Take Matt King as an example. The man juggles two troubled daughters and an emotionally-distant and recently comatose wife, while still making the life-changing decisions that his family depends on him to make. As Matt King is not as extraordinary as his name would imply, he does his best with what life has dealt him.
The Descendants introduces King (George Clooney) at a crucial time in his life. The trust on his family’s vast plot of virgin Hawaii is about to expire, leaving King, the sole trustee, to decide for the family the land’s fate. As a lawyer, Clooney’s King sorts through messes of legal business with such familiarity that one would never suspect what messes he carries beyond the boardroom.
In fact, in the first act alone, King learns a few things about that mess. Both daughters Scottie (Amara Miller), 10, and Alex (Shailene Woodley), 17, are getting into trouble in their own ways. Scottie misbehaves in school and Alex drinks. As the self-described “back-up parent,” King disappointedly leaves most of the work to his wife, who, as luck would have it, has entered a permanent coma following a boating accident. King’s constant internal narration regrets that he and his wife had grown apart in the months prior to the story. When Alex reveals to King that the tension was due in part to his wife’s affair, both he and his audience are caught off guard. It’s an awful lot for one guy to handle.
That he lives in Hawaii makes his struggle no easier. If anything, the stunning Hawaiian landscape and traditional Hawaiian soundtrack, characters on their own, work to underscore King’s hardship; had the film taken place somewhere more mundane, these trials would seem only natural.
Sure, the age-old “trouble in paradise” paradox has some grounding from King’s perspective. Why shouldn’t he have to deal with the same awful experiences that everybody else has to? The story, based on the novel of the same name by native-Hawaiian Kaui Hart Hemmings, blurs all lines between life on and off the screen. “It’s not a story about tourists,” asserts director Alexander Payne. “It’s a story about people who live there.”
Payne, known for satirical portrayals of American life like 2002’s About Schmidt and 2005’s Sideways, paces the film to perfectly suit his everyman protagonist rather than his exotic locale. As King colorfully jokes, “paradise can go [blank] itself.”
Clooney, not surprisingly, gives his full commitment to portraying a convincing everyman protagonist. His craft is as much visual as it is verbal. An awkward flip-flop sprint down an orchid-lined road says as much as any spoken line. It’s hard to imagine anyone else filling the role, as Clooney sells it so perfectly. Shailene Woodley, hardly recognizable from her “Secret Life of the American Teenager” days, stands nearly as tall in the role of Alex, the older of King’s daughters. Alex gives King a good deal of pathos, representing his failed responsibility as a father. She obviously suffers as her father does, leaving Woodley with the opportunity to reach Clooney’s level. The two actors play off each other seamlessly as they trail their wife’s/mother’s lover across Hawaii. The relationship between Alex and her father is one of the most convincing and compelling in years of film.
The rest of the ensemble, rounded out by the likes of Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges and Judy Greer, gives the story its surprising humanity. Ultimately, every one of the film’s character feels far more human than fiction.
Human as he is, Matt King, as promised, does his best with what life deals him. His wife ultimately dies and Matt, staying true to himself, decides to keep his family’s land rather than sell it. It’s a powerful exercise in responsibility; King resolves to protect the land as his ancestors depended on him to do. Consider it his fresh start to his new life with his daughters. Not that his is any different from anyone else’s.