Movie Review: ‘The Descendants’ – Iowa State Daily

‘The Descendants’
Davalyn Stepzinski

“The Descendants” speaks more to a generation before us than to us, if I were to spell it out in so many words.
I have a personal goal every year — that I always fall short of — to see every movie nominated for Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with special cases given to other movies on the list of nominees that I find particularly interesting. I am a sucker for a unique story that either presents a different story or does a tired story in a creative way. In a nutshell, I am who you call that person who likes “different” movies. Therefore, my film diet generally consists of foreign films and indies.
That being said, “The Descendants” is not exactly that type of film.
The film takes place in Hawaii in an interesting juxtaposition that reminds us that even complex problems exist in beautiful places. This particular problem begins when Matt King (George Clooney) learns that his adventurous wife (Patricia Hastie) has been in an accident that has put her into a serious coma. Being fairly absent from both his daughters’ lives, the teenage Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and young Scottie (Amara Miller), he is forced to play the role of primary parent, which he learns early on is not easy — especially since both his daughters are a bit on the wild side.
On top of that, King has to decide what to do with his share of land, being a descendant of the first landowners of Hawaii, in terms of whether he wants to sell his exquisite land to make way for tourism or keep it for his family to keep camping on every so often. Of course, selling the land is going to bring the whole extended family into more money, which makes the decision even more pressing and even more important, but having to keep track of his two daughters and even himself after learning a secret about his wife makes that all the more difficult to manage.
There’s no doubt the acting in this film is well done, even from Woodley, whom I have only seen from “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” and if I were to judge her simply from that, would have considered her not very compelling. Truth be told, her role was not extremely far from that of the earlier, being again a teenager, albeit older, but this time in a more angst-filled role that eventually matures as the film does. As usual, Clooney does a great job, this time in his portrayal of the “average guy” just trying to hold it together and learn how to be a father again.
The actual story is not something that resonates deep within my soul or anything, however. I hold that to my never having experienced a situation the characters in this film are subjected to. At the same time, while many felt a certain empathy for them, I’m afraid I felt mostly immune. I could feel for Clooney at all those moments he was lost for words and just pulling at air, hoping something would sound father-like, such as when an impromptu visit to pick up Woodley from boarding school with Miller at his side finds him outside on the property with a flashlight in front of his tipsy daughter throwing swears in his face. How does a parent plan for that scenario? That’s an absolute nightmare. But that’s exactly my point.
I am not a parent, not at this point in my 22-year-old life, and thus those parts only vaguely relate to me. Instead, I found myself hoping I was nothing like Woodley during her rebellious moments of the film, where she tried to “whatever” her way out of all the conversations Clooney tried to put in front of her. As for Miller, I felt nothing but hope that she got out of the phase she was going through, because if she grew up in the same state, I can only wish Clooney’s character luck.
As for the rest, it takes the story a while to unfold, in order to get everyone set up and established before everything could be put in motion. And even then, that took its time. In some ways, I suppose that could be said to demonstrate the laid-back style that one associates with life in Hawaii or anywhere tropical for that matter, but I wonder if that would be taking it too literally. The same would have to be said of its Hawaiian soundtrack, which is great in that it showcases some indigenous talent and kept the mood of the island atmosphere going. Truth be told, however, as much as I hate to say it, it started to give me a headache.
All in all, “The Descendants” is a solid and well-made film that is just simply lost on me. After discussing it with a few others my age who also saw it, I think it can be agreed in that it is meant for an older audience, or for any who have faced the dilemmas it covers. There is nothing about this film that screams awful, but neither does it handle anything particularly well. It depicts the almost average American family reacting to a family tragedy and a family business deal that just happens to be almost as dull as it sounds.
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