Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Movie Review: The Descendants

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At the 2011 Hawaii International Film Festival the closing film was The Descendants. The film screened and director Alexander Payne received the Vision Award to recognize him for his broad insights into all facets of the film trade. The screening had sold out and the word of mouth was very good. I was looking forward to the general release of the film. When it did release, the movie was not showing at the main theater, the Regal Dole Cannery which is the home to HIFF. Instead, Regal pushed it out to a smaller theater. This was surprising considering all the positive buzz the movie has been receiving. Instead of heading out a dozen miles to Regal’s location, I once again headed just 3 miles to the competitor’s location.

The Descendants Movie Poster
The movie was well worth the effort to try to figure out where it was playing and the effort to get there. Starring George Clooney as Matt King, it tells the story of a man navigating through turbulent waters. The opening sequence to set the mood for the story has Matt talking in a voice over about the mainland perception of Hawaii vs the realities of living in paradise. As he talks, somewhat of a controlled rant, images of the beauty, dirt and yet ordinary everyday scenes of life in and around Honolulu backdrop the narration. As a twenty plus year resident of Hawaii, I could fully understand where he was coming from. Hawaii and the cultures here play a very important role in the movie setting the framework in the world of the King family.

Matt is being squeezed from different sides. He is the lone controlling trustee for a large tract of land from the estate of a Hawaiian Princess who married a white businessman that has been handed down through several generations. The trust which currently holds the property will dissolve in seven years and local residents and family members fall on both sides of the coin to retain the land in its pristine condition or to sell it to developers for shopping centers, marinas and housing. Either decision will have an impact on the people in the state of Hawaii but a direct impact on the relatives.

Matt and his family live a comfortable life style. He works as a real estate attorney and lives in what I call an established home, a house that has been around for decades in one of the older neighborhoods of Nuuanu or Manoa. He lives off of his lawyer income and not the money from the trust. He doesn’t want to squander the money that he has. He wants to provide enough for his kids but not so much that they don’t have to work. He’s trying to find the balance between modern day necessities and what having the trust could provide.

His wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) has just had a terrible boating accident and lies in a coma. While everyone tells Matt she’s a strong woman, she’ll pull through, the doctors have said otherwise. They have no hope that Elizabeth will recover and have recommended disconnecting her from life support equipment as instructed in a living will. Matt now has to struggle with this decision. The woman who he married lies there in the bed and he’s unable to receive a response to his statements about how he has treated her and his two girls over the past several years. He says he’ll be more attentive and responsive, but it doesn’t matter now.

His youngest daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller) is acting out in school. His older 17 year old daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) has been sent off to boarding school on the Big Island. Matt needs to pick her up at school and bring her back to Honolulu and break the bad news to her. He wants to try to keep the younger daughter shielded from the bad news as long as possible. He’s challenged because he was never really close with his daughters, as he says he was the backup parent to them.

Matt tries to talk to Alexandra about her behavior and her anger but she won’t listen. He shoots straight from the hip about her mom dying. After a breakdown in the pool festooned with floating leaves she knocks Matt in the gut by letting him know that the reason she is upset and angry is that she had caught her mom cheating. So now the knowledge of an affair adds to the turmoil sending Matt into a further state of shock.

In the end, this is not a total feel good movie. You know early on that Elizabeth is not going to make it so no bright flowers and rainbows let’s watch the couple sit on the beach in each other’s arms as the sun sets on the Pacific Ocean. The acting all around was superb. You are drawn in as Matt and the kids go to talk to her parents. The dad’s gruff exterior with the feeling that Matt wasn’t good enough for his daughter or the dad trying to explain to his dementia afflicted wife are not played in a goofy or over the top manner. Matt takes the kids over to Kauai to show them the land that he has been entrusted. While both Matt and Alexandra talk about the times they have spent camping there Scottie pipes in pointing out that if the land is sold she’ll never be able to have the family camping experience. You feel for them all the way around. In the end you see a family that has some fractures and splits and has to try to heal if they want to stay together.

I think the biggest compliment that could be given to the movie I heard in the restroom afterward. One man was talking to another and saying “I knew this was a George Clooney movie, but I forget it was George Clooney”. If you have a chance to see this 115 minute R rated for language including some sexual references movie, make the effort I think you'll enjoy it.

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