In The Descendants George Clooney portrays a relatively average character for one the few times in his career. He isn’t flashy or particularly debonair. He isn’t a CIA agent, a con man, or a presidential candidate. Instead Clooney plays Matt King, a middle-aged lawyer who lives in Hawaii with his wife and two daughters.
Matt is the self-described back-up parent. After his wife Elizabeth is critically injured in a boating accident, he suddenly becomes more responsible for his two daughters than he ever imagined. 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is bitter and resentful while 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) is acting out at school and at home. The family crisis worsens when Matt learns of his wife’s affair prior to the accident. In a comedic change of pace, Matt and his daughters set out to find his wife’s lover.
As it would also happen, Matt is descended from Hawaiian royalty and is the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of pristine land on the island of Kaua’i. While Matt is addressing the realities of his wife’s condition, he and his cousins (the most prominant is played by Beau Bridges) are deciding what developer to sell this land to.
As expected from an Alexander Payne movie, The Descendants finds great humor in very real and human moments. When Matt runs through the streets in his loafers and arrives at his friend’s house, sweaty and panting, is one of the most hilarious moments in the film. But the humor almost immediately subsides. Matt wants to know the name of his wife’s lover and not so gently breaks to news to his friends about his wife fast-approaching death.
Likewise, Matt’s teenage daughter Alexandra is first introduced comedically before her problems are revealed. Shailene Woodley, best known for playing the first pregnant girl on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager, is a surprising revelation in this role. She carries herself with a profound level of maturity and fragility. Alexandra has been cast away to boarding schools and she has been incredibly hurt by her parents but she quickly comes around to help her father and to take care of her younger sister. Woodley and Clooney’s performances balance each other perfectly.
Perhaps the most important character in The Descendants is Hawaii itself. In an early voiceover, Matt complains that people on the mainland think because he lives in paradise, his life is more carefree. (“Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself.”) The camera is quick to show that Hawaii is filled with as much poverty as any other state. Often the skies are dark and misty. This is hardly a romanticized version of Hawaii.
But the first time we see the land owned by Matt’s family is a stunningly gorgeous contrast to the Hawaii we have seen so far. The characters, especially Alexandra, are nostalgic about the land. She reminisces about happier times she had there with her mother and her younger sister remarks how she had never been there with their mother. The plot device revolving the the family’s land initially seemed like a contrived way to have Matt come to accept his wife’s past choices and fate. But as the movie progresses, the land comes to represent the family’s chance at happiness that had evaded them for some time.