The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne, whose other credits include the immortal Sideways, is a Hawaiian-set family drama that hits enough familiar beats to let you feel comfortable (business-minded father is forced to bond with unruly daughters, a moral dilemma about the potential lucrative sale of unspoiled land for commercial purposes) while still featuring several satisfyingly unpredictable twists in the narrative. It’s adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings and the sometimes blunt and self-interested, sometimes unexpectedly subtle and compassionate nature of many of the family members seems more characteristic of a well-written book than your typical reductive Hollywood screenplay. George Clooney takes the lead role as Matt King, a lawyer and sole controller of a family trust that would command a very high purchase price, whose life gets somewhat up-ended when his not-quite-estranged wife suffers a serious water-skiing accident that leaves her in a coma. Subsequent revelations and meetings cause King to re-evaluate some of his relationships and to seek unusual forms of closure.
Clooney’s in every scene of the film and it’s a strong performance, with his trademark charm largely ditched in favour of a convincingly harried and occasionally short-tempered approach. His character is often on the back foot here and it’s refreshing to see him playing shock, tiredness and anger so well. The supporting actors are good as well, with Shailene Woodley standing out as King’s seventeen year old daughter and a pleasingly gruff cameo from the great Robert Forster as King’s not to be crossed father-in-law. This is a film that succeeds due to its intelligent and non-ingratiating script rather than any flashy directorial flourishes and Payne wisely keeps it simple, but it’s unusual and fascinating to see footage shot in Hawaii that avoids the clichés and includes footage of tower blocks, motorways and suburban homes. My main problem with the film is that I wished it was funnier, but I suspect that’s my problem, not Alexander Payne’s. It’s definitely worth a look.