Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants provides plenty of darkly humourous and humane subject-matter for accomplished film-maker, Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways).


Living on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu, through a voice-over Matt King (George Clooney) is quick to dispel the myth island life is idyllic: “Paradise can go to hell”.

His wife, Elizabeth, is shown falling from a powerboat during a race and we soon discover she’s now in a coma. Although everyone describes her as a “tough gal”, it’s clear she won’t make it and Matt must agree to turn her life support off. To top it all, he discovers she was having an affair and had planned to divorce him.

Clooney’s Matt is instantly likable and sympathetic, clearly deserved of his award nominations. In addition to dealing with news about his wife, Matt is sole trustee in control of acres of land distant relatives want to sell, dividing the community. Once absorbed by such matters, Matt is now more concerned with being a good father.

Watching him cluelessly interact with Scotty and his older daughter, Alex, it’s easy to relate to the frustrations of his inability to communicate. It’s difficult not to feel for him when he desperately appeals to a teenage Sid for help or is left having to tell friends and family news of Elizabeth’s imminent end. Like previous leads, Payne makes Matt a well-balanced but flawed character, best shown in his occasionally off-mark comments and timing.

Newcomer Amara Miller is fantastic as Scotty, initially dealing with the situation by bizarrely creating a coma photo album and later more destructively throwing garden furniture into the pool and sending offensive text messages. Big sis, Alexander, is out of the picture for some time and when we do finally meet her, we discover she caught her mother having an affair and hasn’t properly spoken to her since before the accident. TV actress, Shailene Woodley, sensitively deals with the complexities of this role, eventually helping Matt to take control. Her friend, Sid comically acts as her support-mechanism, accompanying the Kings everywhere. As Sid, Nick Krause adds depth to the character, allowing Sid to gradually open up as someone who has also recently experienced grief.

Alongside believable characters, Payne writes some awkwardly funny scenes that help to illustrate the humour in even the most dire situations. From the amusing first meeting of cousins to Clooney’s heavy-footed running and the car stalking of Elizabeth’s new lover, despite depressing subject-matter, The Descendants is a quietly funny film. The final showdown between Elizabeth’s new lover and Matt is surrealy played, almost like an interview with Clooney firing a series of now irrelevant questions: “ You ever been inside my bedroom?”

Payne showcases some beautiful landscape and really captures the inter-relatedness of the islanders. In Matt King he presents us with a reasonable man who has a lot to contend with. Fears of losing his wife clearly constantly play on his mind and the awkwardness of knowing how to deal with the situation is universal. The Descendants is heartfelt and smile-inducing, exploring the dangers of secrets, grief and the importance of maintaining a balanced life. Payne’s final scene is genuinely moving, giving a sense of closure through Matt’s growing bond with his girls.

Review by Leo Owen


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