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The Descendants’: One Small, Dysfunctional Family

Neil Mathieson | Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Gone are the days of the traditional American families, if they were ever here to begin with. The visages of Rockwell’s wholesome Americanism that we find on postcards and calendars are nothing but illusive shadows. They are myth, a fantasy we hold as a standard. A bar we will always fall short of, some of us more painfully than others. As Tolstoy wrote, “happy families are all alike; but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

In director Alexander Payne’s (“Sideways”) “The Descendants,” we come upon a family in crisis. Matt King (George Clooney), an aristocrat of the Hawaiian Islands and prominent land owner, is an incompetent father of two. His wife lies unconscious in a hospital after a boating accident left her in a coma. Isolated, overwhelmed and scared, Matt King explains to his daughters Alexandra, 17, and Scottie, 10, that legally they must take their mother off life support and she will never wake up. However, Matt discovers his wife has been having an affair. Not only is she leaving him in death, but she has already left him in spirit. He decides to track the adulterer down. Furthermore, through lineage, Matt is the trustee of some of the most valuable land on O’ahu. The King clan is ready to sell, but Matt is starting to have second thoughts, unsure whether he is ready to let another part of his family go.

“The Descendants” continues the wave of modern American films about dysfunctional families, following “Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Kids are Alright” and “Rachel Getting Married.” The film is a whimsical drama layered over heartfelt tragedy and poetic soulfulness that anchor it in truth and personal experience. The backdrop of Hawaii is not the Hawaii that one would expect. The beautiful vistas are accentuated with a grey and gloom that make the environment reflect the bitter psyche of the soon-to-be-widowed Matt King. This paradise is no escape for him, but rather the harshest of realities.

Clooney takes the helm of this cast and never steers them off course. He gives one of the year’s most moving performances as a father who is as equally afraid of his children as he is in love with them. His fear stems from his own inadequacy as a parent and the subversive effects his nurturing will have on his daughters. Clooney’s ability to emote this relatable anxiousness and uncertainty shines through with genuineness. He alleviates many of the films tougher moments while highlighting his delicate comic dexterity. However, his most impressive moments are often the quietest in which we watch a man struggle against life’s crippling suddenness. We truly feel the weight he carries, and for that, Clooney should be applauded and recognized.

Payne directs the film with a poignant tenderness. He keeps the camera close to his characters focusing on the emotional warfare at play. He cuts away only to insert moments of everyday images and life that exfoliate the travel brochure sheen of Hawaii in exchange for a more authentic and intimate window into the universe of the King family. Furthermore, he scores the film with a series of melancholic ukulele ballads that set a wonderfully introspective mood and ground the film more firmly in Hawaiian culture.

This is not to say “The Descendants” is all bleakness and despair. At its core, Payne’s film is really about redemption, forgiveness and familial love. Payne recognizes that being a parent is hard and raising a family is even harder. Kids are savvier than ever before, completely aware of the transgressions of ineptitude and hypocrisy that every parent will undoubtedly commit. But, as Matt King realizes, marriage and parenting are not an exact or even logical sciences; life’s spontaneity destroys all chances of that. Life is often chaos. But, often only amidst such a tempest of chaos and heartache do we really find our bearings. We discover ourselves, but more importantly those around us.

Contact Neil Mathieson at nmathies@nd.edu