We watched “The Descendants” Sunday evening. As two people who have experienced everything in that film in one way or another, it was an incredibly moving experience. But even if we didn’t relate so closely with the characters, “The Descendants” is a perfect movie.
You feel as if you are watching a documentary about a family going through hell. George Clooney portrays Matt King, an Hawaiian descendant of royalty, whose wife, Elizabeth, is critically injured in a boating accident. Matt has two daughters-Scottie, age 10 and Alexandra, age 17. While his wife lays comatose in a hospital bed, Matt King tries to keep his family together and deal with the sale of a large parcel of land that has been in his family for generations.
He has no idea how to connect with, or help his youngest daughter, so he takes Scottie to retrieve Alexandra from the private school she attends. When they find Alex, she is drunk, outside, hitting golf balls. Matt tries to tell her about her mother, and Alex’s response gives us a brief glimpse of something darker going on in the King family.
George Clooney is brilliant in this movie. His behavior is exact, and you feel as if he is living this out rather than acting. The young actresses who portray his daughters absolutely shine. Shailene Woodley as Alexandra is the typical teenager. She’s angry, belligerent, snotty, foul-mouthed and disrespectful. At the moment you find out one of the reasons she is so angry, her performance will take your breath away. And Amara Miller gives us a 10-year old trying to figure out how to exist in a world without her mother, even though she still clings to the hope that Mom will wake up.
Robert Forster makes an appearance as Elizabeth King’s father, Scott. Forster is one of the finest character actors of my generation. His rage and hostility are hard to watch, but again, his dialogue is perfect. You see the fear and the love beneath the exterior. Forster also gives “The Descendants” one of its funniest scenes.
Rounding out this ensemble is Nick Krause as Sid, Alex’s friend. At first, we assume Alex has called Sid because he’s her boyfriend, but as the movie continues, we notice that might not be the correct word for their relationship. Matt King figures that out as well, in one of the most emotional scenes of the film. It’s emotional because of what is not said, what is not done. Many of the most powerful scenes in “The Descendants” are like that: written differently, staged differently, they would be sappy or too much. With Alexander Payne’s script and gorgeous directing, every scene is seamless and stunning.
The scenes that affected me the most involve the conflict I felt when my mother died. I loved her, and at the same time, she hurt me so deeply, I didn’t know how to mourn, or even if I could. With Matt King and Alexandra, you watch that conflict unfold. Upon learning that Elizabeth is not going to ever wake up, Alex sinks beneath the surface of a swimming pool, sobbing. That’s what it feels like, when you first realize the person who hurt you the most is dying. It feels exactly like drowning. When Matt King finally lets his anger and hurt out at his comatose wife, it brought me back to when I walked into the funeral home for my mother’s service. I wanted to just scream and yell and throw things and sob. I wanted it all out of me, and Clooney’s understated performance in this scene is astonishingly truthful.
As I wrote in the beginning of this article, my husband was brought back to the moment his mom took him to see his father in the hospital. Towards the end of “The Descendants,” Scottie is finally told that her mom will never wake up. Scottie stands in front of a therapist, her family behind her. The emotion that appears on her face is incredibly poignant and profoundly sad, and once again, you forget you are watching an actor. You are living this with Scottie, and I cannot give enough praise to Amara Miller for her performance. Both these young women are magical to watch, and Alexander Payne could not have chosen better.
“The Descendants” is a tough movie, especially if you have experienced the events dealt with in the film. Watch it with someone you love, and be prepared to have to remind yourself to breathe. It really is a perfect movie.
“The Descendants” is rated R for language and mature subject matter. Thanks to IMBD for cast information.