The Descendants

I’ve been a bit behind on my blog, but still have been slowly plugging away at my pre-Oscar season movie list. I made it through The Descendants last week and before that saw Hugo. Luckily the two are completely different films because I would have a hard time deciding which one is more deserving in the best picture category.

But I also think that’s the least important factor when it comes to The Descendants. I’ve had many a conversation about the film in the last week but it’s been difficult to express my thoughts about the layers of this story and its meanings into writing.
On the surface, the story is of Hawaiian native Matt King (George Clooney) and his plight to raise his two daughters while his wife Elizabeth is in a coma after a boating accident. He is also involved in the final days of a decision whether to sell family land to a developer and split the money with his relatives or do nothing.
Those two plot points are very significant and telling in the film, but the lasting impact is director and writer Alexander Payne’s perfect mix of emotion and realism in adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel to the big screen.
Clooney and the young actresses who play his daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) come in here and deliver some of the most emotional scenes I’ve seen in a movie lately. Payne directs those scenes to show the power of human nature over emotion rather than to simply have his actors do their best cry on screen and have the audience join in.
Payne slowly builds the dynamic of the characters’ relationships for the viewer as he does the climax of this chapter of their lives.
After Elizabeth’s accident and coma, members of the King family had to start to repair their strained relationships without being able to directly communicate with her. Many of the scenes focus on secrets, loss and blame and in those scenarios Payne and the actors kept the emotion reined in just enough so as to not overshadow reality.
An example, which was one of the most telling and memorable scenes in the movie for me, is when Matt finds out Elizabeth was having an affair with another man before her accident. King’s response is a mixture of sadness and anger and he actually goes to the hospital where Elizabeth is and verbally expresses that to her.
The scene was hard to watch, but didn’t cause an emotional flood of tears for me because Matt’s need to confront his wife as if she were able to respond was simply human nature.
Overall, I would say what I enjoyed most about Payne’s approach to developing the story and characters in The Descendants is I didn’t feel the need to ask: What would I do if I were in that situation?
I do often try to apply films to my own life or involuntarily can relate to them in some way, but I left The Descendants with the humble feeling that I have no idea what the King family could possibly be going through if I did know them.
The Descendants is unique in that regard and most of all carries the lesson that in times of change — good or bad, sad or happy, we’re all human.

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