By Nick Atkin

Alexander Payne’s The Descendants continues where the director left off from 2004’s Sideways to examine the troubles of wealthy, middle-aged white men in this hotly-tipped awards’ favourite. 

The film has received three BAFTA nominations including Best Film, having bagged Best Drama and Best Actor for George Clooney at the Golden Globes last week. 

Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, Payne transports the family melodrama staple of 1950s Hollywood cinema to the unlikely setting of supposedly sleepy, peaceful Hawaii. 

However, it is anything but – as Clooney’s Matt King opines, “My friends think that just because we live in Hawaii we live in paradise…paradise can go fuck itself.” 

Like every other part of America and the world over, life here is riddled with tragedy and beauty in equal measure. 

Indeed, it is a paradise lost as Clooney gives a moving performance in this beautifully acted comedy drama, learning to adapt to life without adulterous wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), the mother of their two daughters. 

Matt is a frugal, unadventurous Hawaiian-born land baron with an ancestral tie to King Kamehameha, the last Hawaiian royal, but is on the verge of sealing a deal with his cousins to sell their inherited land to a property developer. 

His uneventful life is thrown into disarray when Elizabeth is left comatose by a boating accident, putting him in sole care of 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and teenager Alex (Shailene Woodley). 

But, as Matt observes, “I’m the backup parent, the understudy,” a neglectful father whose fraught relationship with the pair reduces him to remarking, “I don’t get it, I don’t know what to do.” 

In a scene reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s disastrous attempts to cook breakfast for his son in Robert Benton’s Kramer vs Kramer (1979), a clueless Matt makes Scottie and Alex scrambled eggs only for them to react with disgust and apathy respectively. 

The islands of Hawaii are a suitably apt setting – for Matt, his family “feels exactly like an archipelago, separate but part of a whole, and always drifting slowly apart.” 

But Payne’s distant characters are reconnected through struggle with each other and their heritage, embarking on an island-hopping journey marked by lines on a CGI map, harking back to the footsteps their forefathers once charted. 

In her big screen debut, newcomer Woodley is both confident and touching, her anger towards her cheating mother exacerbated by grief which she must to terms with in equal measure.

Hastie holds a haunting presence over the film with Payne retrospectively and sympathetically examining her life through glimpses of photographs and recollections from her distraught family and friends, the director defending her because she cannot defend herself. 

But the stunning Hawaiian landscape is perhaps the real star of Payne’s film, Clooney’s reflective self-examination complimented by Phedon Papamichael’s meditative cinematography. 

Ponderous shots of ocean waves lapping against the shore are pierced by glimpses of a vegetative Elizabeth as a reminder of the destructive power of nature. 

The Descendants is remarkably funny for a film dealing with issues so grave, comic-relief primarily provided by Alex’s tag-along surfer-dude friend Sid (Nick Krause), striking a perfect balance of tone to prevent us being overwhelmed. 

The film also gently touches on wider issues of capitalism and conservationism but never so strong as to alienate and come across as preachy. 

It’s not the astonishing masterpiece that some have made it out to be, but The Descendants is still an outstanding contender this awards season worthy of its critical acclaim, albeit in a lean year for the industry.

About The Author

Simon Fitzjohn

Simon is a journalism tutor in London, who also just happens to be a movie fanatic, with a craving for the darker side of cinema. He has written two books, one on the horror films of director Bob Clark (2014) and the other on the history of the character Norman Bates (2015). His third book, on the work of British exploitation director Pete Walker, is due in 2017.