Monday, December 12, 2011

The Descendants

The Descendants
Writer/Director: Alexander Payne
Star: George Clooney

The commercials/trailers for The Descendants made it look funnier than it actually was.  That isn't to say the movie doesn't have humor because it truly does.  However there are more serious discussions and noticeable moments of quiet than one might realize when viewing the commercials. 

Director Alexander Payne has a knack for taking a few days or weeks in someone's life and making it pretty darn interesting.  The characters in his movies develop and progress (usually for the better).  Typically they have some life-changing experience (though not usually life-threatening) and come out on the other end with a new life lesson in their pocket. Payne's characters are often sad or just plain pathetic but by the end of the movie, there exists a little hope.  There's a glimmer that even though their life kinda sucked before they might just be ok.  I don't always love his movies like most critics do (Sideways was entertaining but I had no way of connecting with those two) but I'm always intrigued about how he handles someone's story.  The Descendants and Payne did not let me down.

It's not a happy story but it's in Hawaii and stars George Clooney so it's a pretty one:  A wife/mother is out water skiing, takes a tumble, hits her head, and ends up in a coma.  Her husband, Matt, having never had a history of direct parenting their two daughters, is suddenly faced with the daily duty of being a father. His 10-year old daughter, Scottie, is acting out at school on an almost daily basis.  She's sending bullying texts and bringing in pictures of her coma mom for her art project.  Matt's older daughter, Alexandra, has a history of bad behavior (drugs, drinking, etc.) herself and is off at boarding school on the big island.  There's also a big business deal involving Matt and his cousins that affects all of Hawaii but this is truly secondary to the core relationships of Matt and his girls.  Also secondary (but a story catalyst),  is the his wife's marital unhappiness. 

I don't have much else to say about Payne's directing that I didn't say above.  What's true about his handling of other movies is true of this as well.  Oddly my favorite of his films, Election, is probably my favorite because it's so dang quirky.  He's less quirky now and more interested in what makes people -less driven than the Tracy Flicks of this world- tick.  Payne has a true love and sensitivity for his characters but, and maybe it's just me, the dude loves locations almost as much. It was so nice to see the everyday Hawaii and not the vacation Hawaii its tourists know.  People really do live and work there and don't exist to place a lei around your neck. 

Woodley as Alex (l) and Krause as Sid (r). Sid ROCKS!
The cast was fantastic and, as this is a character driven movie, they'd kind of have to be.  Clooney was as good as he usually is and it'd be nice to see him recognized for this film come award season.  The daughters, played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller were great.  I know who Shailene is because I often watch the Harry Potter movies when they're on ABC Family.  If you do too then you've seen the ads for her show, the terribly titled: The Secret Life of the American Teenager.  Her show gets made fun of a lot on The Soup so I had very low expectations when I heard she was going to be in this film.  I figured at most she'd have a line here or there but I was totally wrong.  Woodley did a fantastic job as Alexandra and I was really impressed at how she held her own with Clooney.  I'll still never watch her TV show but I'll try not to be all judgey the next time a teen TV actress makes a leap onto the big screen (unless they're also releasing a CD-then all bets are off).  Amara Miller was also very good as the troubled 10-year old Scottie and stayed far from being a hammy, child actor.  Typically it's the youngest actor who gets the nod as the scene-stealer but in this movie that was the duty of Nick Krause who played Alex's friend, Sid.  At first Sid says all the wrong things and you want to punch him (in fact he does get punched once and comes close a second time).  About midway through the film that changed and I was totally looking forward to what Sid would say.  There are a bunch of other recognizable actors in it and they were all good but mostly I was impressed with the younger stars.

And just a word of's SERIOUSLY language-y.  The daughters use words that would make some of us blush. 

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