Film Review: The Descendants

Alexander Payne’s The Descendants features a great screenplay and some good performances. For all its merits, however, the film does not have a lasting impact.

Matt King is a lawyer and landowner leaving in Hawaii. When his wife suffers a boating accident, he is forced to look after his two daughters. With his wife in a coma, Matt tries to reconnect with ten-year-old Scottie and her older sister Alexandra. Matt must juggle these responsibilities with the decision of making a major land sale…

The Descendants features a narrative that could have been quite sad. Instead, the themes are dealt with using a lighter approach. The humour in the film is a good antidote to the film’s emotional side. The film can quickly jump from drama to comedy, making some of the laughs quite unexpected.

The characters in the film are all well developed. They appear natural rather than one dimensional. It is not difficult to empathise with Matt, and the raft of emotions he goes through. The secondary strand of the land sale is not quite as interesting as the main narrative, although the repeating of the family theme is a nice touch.

George Clooney offers an engaging performance as Matt. Shailene Woodley is well cast as Alexandra, while Nick Krause does an excellent job as Sid. Judy Greer is also great, and it is nice to see Matthew Lillard using his comedy chops in a mainstream film. The Descendants captures some beautiful imagery of Hawaii. Music is often understated, which works well in the context.

The Descendants is a well-produced film and an enjoyable watch. It is unlikely to linger in the mind for too long after viewing, but this isn’t really a necessity.

The Descendants is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2011.