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Published on March 1st, 2012 | by Yellow Magpie

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The Descendants Film Review: A Wonderful Insight Into A Family In Crisis

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Director: Alexander Payne.
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Nick Krause.

The Descendants is a powerfully emotive film whose precise execution ensures that the viewer is never witness to mawkish sentimentality in an extremely human story with family at its heart.

The King clan are going through a traumatic period in their lives. The matriarch of the family, Elizabeth, was involved in a tragic accident that has led to her spending several months in a comatose state.

Matt (George Clooney), Alexander (Shailene Woodley) And Scottie King (Amara Miller) In The Descendants

The situation becomes critical when her husband, Matt, is told by doctors that his wife is effectively brain dead. Burdened by this, and the fact that the life support machine will have to be switched off, he must tell his two young daughters of their mother’s fate and organise the funeral proceedings.

To add further complexity to the situation Matt is the trustee of an enormous amount of Hawaiian land that other family members wish to sell to developers. Finally, to make matters even worse, Matt learns from his daughter that his wife was having an affair unbeknownst to him.

The Descendants is an gripping look inside a normal family dealing with two serious and separate issues. The film does this in a calm and intelligent manner and never resorts to the usual methods of sensationalism.

Alexander King (Shailene Woodley), Matt King (George Clooney), Scottie King (Amara Miller) And Sid (Nick Krause) In The Descendants

For this reason some cinema goers who have become used to dramatic action may be surprised at the pacing and could find it overlong. Many others though will be enthralled to see how Matt handles all of these difficulties in a real life manner.

‘Nevertheless, the film does have its comic moments like Matt running in flip flops which is quite entertaining.’

What we get is an ordinary family doing its best to cope in difficult circumstances. Nevertheless, the film does have its comic moments like Matt running in flip flops which is quite entertaining. This, as well as several interjections from Sid, a friend of Matt’s daughter, Alexandra, provide some memorably funny sequences.

Alexander King (Shailene Woodley), Matt King (George Clooney), Alice 'Tutu' Thorson (Barbara L. Southern) And Scott Thorson (Robert Forster) In The Descendants

George Clooney is brilliant as the tormented father, Matt. Instead of the usual suave Clooney we get a tired middle-aged man trying to deal with two feisty, demanding daughters. His portrayal is endearing and sincere with the usual Clooney charm coming through. He easily justifies his Oscar nomination.

‘Starting out as an attention-seeking deviant she matures and eventually provides excellent support to both her sister and her father…’

Shailene Woodley delivers a performance that belies her young years as the eldest daughter, Alexandra King. A complicated and somewhat difficult teenager, Alexandra undergoes a transformation throughout the course of the film. Starting out as an attention-seeking deviant she matures and eventually provides excellent support to both her sister and her father as a confident young woman begins to emerge.

Amara Miller’s portrayal of the youngest daughter of the King household, Scottie, is also quite good. She constantly needs to be minded as she inevitably ends up in trouble otherwise. Like all of the actors in the film, Miller does not overplay her part.

Julie (Judy Greer) And Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) In The Descendants

What’s more she does not suffer from the terrible affliction that plagues Hollywood. That is of course the irritating, unlikeable precociousness found in child-actors. Instead Scottie thankfully remains a child and adds greatly to the natural feel of the film.

‘Yet underscoring him is a deep pathos and empathy of other people and he is highly adroit at reading the emotional states of others.’

Nick Krause’s performance as Alexandra’s friend, Sid, is excellent. He manages to give what is essentially an over-the-top character some plausibility and realism. Sid injects some wonderful humour in many of the scenes that he is in. Yet underscoring him is a deep pathos and empathy of other people and he is highly adroit at reading the emotional states of others.

Matthew Lillard as the man Matt’s wife choose to have an affair with delivers an interesting performance as Brian Speer. Coming across as a weak-willed individual, it is very hard to marry the fact that Speer is a highly ambitious estate agent/auctioneer with what comes across on screen.

Alexander (Shailene Woodley), Matt (George Clooney) And Scottie King (Amara Miller) InThe Descendants

Some viewers may indeed be wondering why Matt’s wife would choose to have an affair with him. Nonetheless, we never get to see her character at all in the film  so we have no idea what she is like. And as the old adage goes, familiarity breeds contempt. 

The Descendants is a film about morals and responsibility both as individuals and as a collective. Matt’s actions in a difficult time are admirable and are all the hallmarks of a good human being who overcomes his flaws and fears.

The film’s great triumph lies in its natural execution and is a wonderful testament to the director Alexander Payne and the fine acting of its cast.


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