Although this movie might not be suitable for all ages because of language and some adult situations, it is nonetheless a family movie. It deals with the issues people face, both as parents and as children, and ultimately it addresses the responsibility of generations to their family.
When Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) falls into a coma as a result of a boating accident, her husband, Honolulu attorney Matt King (George Clooney), is forced to grapple with the problems his youngest daughter, 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) has developed in her mother’s absence. Scottie has begun to act out her own insecurities by sending offensive texts, bullying her fellow students, and posting pictures of her comatose mother. The time comes when Matt is informed by their doctor that there is no longer any hope that Elizabeth will recover, and, per her living will, will be removed from the machines that keep her alive.
Matt and Scottie fly to Kauai to pick up his oldest daughter, 17 year old Alex (Shailene Woodley) who attends a private school. Alex is drunk when they get there, but she comes home with them. As they argue, Alex reveals that her mother has been having an affair, so Matt sets out to find out who the man is. Alex insists that her friend, Sid (Nick Krause) accompany them on this journey. They must tell Elizabeth’s parents about the decision of the doctors. Her father, Scott (Robert Forster), is a bitter man who is trying to deal with his wife’s Alzheimer’s disease. When Sid laughs at her behavior, Scott punches him in frustration.
They discover that the man Elizabeth was having an affair with is Brian Speer ((Matthew Lillard), a wealthy real estate agent. They discover that Brian has taken his wife Julie (Judy Greer) on a vacation to Kauai, so they follow.
All of this very personal action takes place against Matt’s family background. He is the sole trustee of a family trust dating back to the last Hawaiian kings that includes 25,000 acres of prime land on the island of Kauai. This trust is set to expire in seven years due to Hawaiian law and Matt’s cousins, who have squandered their inheritance are pressuring him to sell the land now so they can all cash in. It is a matter of some concern to the Hawaiian people, as the developers who have bid on the land want to turn it into another resort.
Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Nebraska) adapted the Academy Award winning screenplay along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from a novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings, who served as a consultant on the movie. His style is characterized by simplicity so that what you see is pretty much what you get. None of the camera work or lighting ever imposes itself on the action and that is sometimes a very good thing.
George Clooney is terrific as Matt, driving the film from beginning to end with a restrained and thoughtful performance. Alongside him, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller are absolutely perfect as his daughters. Wonderful performances by Judy Greer and Beau Bridges (as Matt’s cousin Hugh) add to the dramatically powerful, yet sometimes comedic story.
The movie is engaging, heartwarming, and flawlessly beautiful. With the landscape of Hawaii constantly dominating the action, the eye is never disappointed. In addition, the soundtrack of Hawaiian songs, befitting all of the moods of the story, is an absolutely perfect addition to the storytelling. In spite of the subject matter, it will leave you feeling very good, comfortable, and content with the world.
In an industry that thrives on thrill-a-minute action, larger than life special effects, and a blaring soundtrack, more movies with the passion, power, and humor of The Descendants are desperately needed. I highly recommend this film!
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