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The Descendants (2011)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Witty and gentle, unfolding at a closely measured pace, The Descendants moves through a chaotic but in the end lovely cohort of relationships wrestling with misdeeds, transgressions, wounds, and flaws, mixing tenderness and aggravation to explore how we might find heart in the middle of a mess. By intricately interweaving several stories, but making it seem like not so many, the film has an intimate feel that deepens its relational significance. Its humor is real life and pointful, not merely gags thrown in for a laugh.

Elizabeth loves thrill sports like boat racing and, unfortunately, it results in a serious head injury that puts her in a coma. Matt has been, as he says it, the “understudy” parent, not much involved in guiding and caring for their two daughters, Alex and Scottie. Elizabeth’s hospitalization requires Matt to step into the leading role, despite his feelings of ineptness. As he tries to help the girls understand the severity of their mom’s condition, he uncovers hidden issues that lead to a bit of an unexpected odyssey. Running time: 115 min.

I said that The Descendants unfolds at a “measured” pace. Some may say “slow,” but the deliberateness of Alexander Payne’s pacing builds a sense of living through the experiences and the unfolding relationships. There are highs and lows, but they are played as small hills when they could easily have been made out to be mountain tops and valleys. This places the focus on relationships, and it gives the film’s questions about relationships have more space to hang in the air. What do we miss when life distracts us from relationships? When a hidden offense comes to light, will our focus be on the wrong or the relationships? Can we see our own culpability? Can we see the pain of others, even offenders? With what yarn will we knit the heart of our connections with others?

In addition to the pacing, the filmcraft has many other strengths as it runs a line between cynicism and sentimentality, successfully weaving through a minefield of potential melodramatic bombs. The screenplay’s juxtaposition of widely varying situations creates numerous close and distant parallels to inform and color the film’s questions. The dialog is compact and clever, particularly in keys scenes of confrontation. Shailene Woodley’s Alex is spot on in capturing a teen’s mix of independence, parental ties, and struggles to find one’s place. The film develops Elizabeth’s character well without falling back on flashbacks. It may have a notable flaw in its lengthy initial voiceover, but that would be about it.

The Descendants is very much worth the time, especially for its less frequently seen angles on relationships.

There are some alcohol and drug references, most of which are clearly related to the story. These characters frequently talk in strong language, including sexual discussion and references that are part of the story or parallel with it. Elizabeth is shown in the hospital in her coma, in various stages of malaise.

  • Director: Alexander Payne
  • Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash based on novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings
  • Leads: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer
  • Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael

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