Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Descendants / **** (R)

Matt King: George Clooney
Alexandra King: Shailene Woodley
Scottie King: Amara Miller
Sid: Nick Krause
Elizabeth King: Patricia Hastie
Brian Speer: Matthew Lillard
Julie Speer: Judy Greer
Scott Thorson: Robert Forster
Alice ‘Tutu’ Thorson: Barbara L. Southern
Cousin Hugh: Beau Bridges

Fox Searchlight Pictures presents a film directed by Alexander Payne. Written by Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash. Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Running time: 115 min. Rated R (for language including some sexual references).

I lost my father this year. I know I’m not alone in losing loved ones, but it’s a very isolating experience. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, and not at all what you expect if you’ve never been through it before. Worst of all, life doesn’t stop for it. You have to sift through all this baggage you never realized you had. You have to put on a copasetic face for the people wishing you well. And, you have to keep on trudging through everything else. Not all serious illnesses and deaths are necessarily as fraught with turmoil as the King family’s in Alexander Payne’s new movie “The Descendants”. Some may even have more. Never has a film come so close to accurately presenting the surreal quality of such a family experience, though.

At the outset of the film, we meet Matt King, a lawyer and descendant of a long time Hawaiian family. We discover his wife, Elizabeth, is in a coma after suffering a head injury in a boating accident. Matt tells us in voice over that he hasn’t watched over their youngest daughter, Scottie, since she was three. She’s ten now and he hasn’t the slightest idea where to even begin with her. He’s the “back-up” parent, and she’s starting to test him. Kids are like the velociraptors in “Jurassic Park” that way; they’re always testing the fences for weaknesses.

Matt learns pretty early on that Elizabeth isn’t going to make it, so that’s no spoiler. It is a wake up for him, however, that his life will never be the same again. He goes to the Big Island to get his oldest daughter, Alexandra, to say goodbye to her mother and help him figure out how to break the news to Scottie. When he arrives at her private school in the middle of the night, she’s been drinking. This gives us the impression that Alex’s character is going in one direction; when in fact, it leads to our first realization that expectations are not what this movie is about.

Alex may be acting out, but it’s not out of typical teenage angst. When she informs her father that her mother was cheating on him, it shifts Matt’s perspective on things and changes the direction of Alex’s role in the film to one of support rather than resistance. That’s not to say she isn’t a teenager. She insists on including her friend Sid in just about everything from that point on. Sid, as played by Nick Krause (“How To Eat Fried Worms”), seems a few fuses short of a circuit at first, but like most other elements of this story, is more than he seems by its end.

Throughout all of this Matt is dealing with being the head of a large family land trust that is being dissolved within the next seven years. The extended family is pushing him to sign a deal to sell the land to a Kaua’i local. We meet several cousins throughout the movie who are politely aware of Matt’s situation with his wife, but more focused on what’s going to be done with the land. Meanwhile, Matt learns that his wife’s lover was a Realtor named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard, “Scooby-Doo”). Matt decides to follow Speer to Kaua’i to invite him to come say goodbye to his wife before they remove her from life support.

I’m sure this description makes this movie sound like a depressing slog through realities we’d all rather escape when watching movies. A few of my friends have even bucked the critical praise of the film to call it “boring.” I don’t know what they were expecting, but “The Descendants” is far from a bore. Instead of giving us action and thrills, it gives us the mysteries of human emotion. Empathy from where you least expect it. Angst from someone who you expect to have compassion. The denseness of others in their attempts to show sympathy. How so much of what we express comes out wrong and why. These are the hooks of this tale, and they’re told with the poetry of everyday life and the humor that allows us to cope.

George Clooney (“The Ides of March”) and Shailene Woodley (“The Secret Life of Teenagers”) anchor the film with their honest performances as father and daughter. Clooney shows shades of several of his screen personalities. His Matt King is a little bit of the stable leader in movies like the “Ocean’s” trilogy and a little bit of the unstable goof seen in the movies he’s done with the Coen Brothers. He never takes the character very far in either direction, which gives him more of an everyman feel despite his good looks. Woodley does a balancing act as a girl who is in every way a teenager and a daughter who steps up in a time of need.

Amara Miller also does a good job as Scottie, balancing the confusion she has about what has happened to her mom and just being a ten-year-old kid. There is an emotional scene early on where her dad talks with another man about the accident. Her reaction is visceral and accurate in depicting a kid’s feelings for something she doesn’t understand. The rest of the cast stays in their supportive roles, never stealing the spotlight from the nuclear family dilemma, but adding color and depth to what this family is experiencing.

I haven’t read the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, who makes it a habit to write about father/daughter relationships. I imagine there must be something autobiographical about her work to capture so well the awkward nature of humans and their relationships with each other. Payne makes a great director for such subject matter, having made his own career out of exploring the eccentricities of human relationships in such films as “About Schmidt” and “Sideways”. “The Descendants” is his best work to date.

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