Alexander Payne has always excelled at making movies about people caught in the tension between who they are and who they’re trying to be. These aren’t bombastic or superficial films. They have none of the ugly gloss of mainstream Hollywood. Rather, to illustrate grand ideas, Payne always turns inward and goes smaller. He knows what all great storytellers eventually learn: The most specific stories are the most universal. By charting the rise, fall, and resurrection of damaged men and women in very precise situations, Payne finds the truths of the human condition that haunt us all. Most people aren’t socially maladjusted authors with a passion for wine, but everyone remembers the moment love first broke their heart open. Most people aren’t manic, self-destructive civics teachers from the Midwest, but everyone knows how it feels to let hate shave a few ounces from your soul. On paper, The Descendants probably sounds dry and not very interesting, or worse, unoriginal — middle-aged man seeks to regain control of his life by repairing his relationship with his kids — but God and the Devil both live in the details, and its in seemingly minor moments that Payne charts the titanic shifts that can take place in someone’s life with nothing more than a word or gesture. The film is sharply observed and painfully authentic, wheeling from comedy to melodrama to genuine pathos often within the space of one small scene, and Payne captures every beat with heartfelt honesty. Because the truth is that we’re all caught in that tension between our past and shaky present, and Payne knows it. He tells a very narrow story about a realistically drawn family, and in so doing, he connects once more to the joy and sorrow in all of us.
The film is actually a series of such dualities, all layered on top of each other. Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer in Honolulu, finds himself faced with the arduous task of reconnecting with his daughters, the 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and the 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), when their mother (Patricia Hastie) suffers a head injury during a boating excursion and winds up in a coma. Matt’s relationship with his wife was already fractured, but Payne’s beautifully observed screenplay — adapted from one Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who’d originally adapted Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel — never once makes the mistake of thinking that relationships exist on just one emotional plane at a time. Matt loves his wife, but he’s also pissed at her for going out on the water; he cherishes his memories of their life together, but he’s angry that he’s staring down the barrel of a lonely future; he wishes he could talk to his wife, but he also yells at her slack, silent face when he visits her in the hospital. In one such scathingly honest moment, Matt tells his wife how much he loves her, calling her both his joy and his pain. It’s a hard-earned line, too. Matt spends the film reconciling seemingly conflicting emotions, working through his feelings for his wife and daughters as he rebuilds his family. Just writing that out so cheaply feels graceless and rude, as if I saw a spider web and idly decided to swing my hand through it in an attempt to understand it. Believe me when I say I know how hard it is to get this through: The love and pain on display here, and the sheer gripping reality of it, are truly something to behold.
What drives the plot though, and what pushes Matt to reconnect with his family, is a storyline that in another film would have been relegated to the background. Matt’s extended family is old money in Hawaii, and they trace their roots back to the first white businessmen to settle and marry into royalty there. Collectively, they’re the heirs to a sizable chunk of prime Hawaiian coastline, but Matt’s the sole trustee. When the story begins, Matt’s not just dealing with his wife’s injury. He’s trying to balance the desires of the various cousins and aunts and uncles who want him to sell the land to a developer before the trust dissolves so they can pocket millions and go on their way. It’s the kind of decision that feels right to be placed on the shoulders of a protagonist in a Payne movie — Matt has to figure out if he wants to honor the relatives who represent his past or strike out in a new direction for his future — but it’s not just tossed in as a physical representation of the hero’s thematic struggle. It’s totally, beautifully integrated into the plot. As Matt spends time working with his family on the decision to sell, he learns that many of the players in the business can be connected to himself and his wife in ways he’d never imagined. (Which I know is so vague I could be accused of just making it up, but I’m working hard to toe a line here between praising the film and revealing the moments that make it so praiseworthy. Payne didn’t make this easy, but I don’t mind a bit.)
Matt’s travels around the islands as he works on the sale and ruminates on his wife’s life become a kind of road movie within the movie, and he spends the time growing closer to Alexandra. As the elder daughter, Woodley is flat-out wonderful, a perfectly portrayed mix of territorial hostility and aloof embarrassment. You know, a teenager. She goes to toe to toe with Clooney and drives him to be a better man and father, and she deftly inhabits a character that rides the line between youthful piety and reluctant maturity. Clooney is wonderful with her, as well, relating to her as a physical equal. Clooney usually takes on a mentor role with younger performers, whether from a prescription of his own role or just something about his age and presence, but he shares the screen with Woodley in the truest idea of the phrase. They become partners in a way, joining forces to help Scottie or tend to grandparents or just show each other what to do next. It’s a wonderful, and wonderfully real, relationship.
That realness extends to the visuals and language, as well. This isn’t “Lost” or Jurassic Park; this isn’t Hawaii shot to be a postcard. Rather, Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael create a gorgeously lived-in Hawaii, one of busy streets, old buildings, and even gray skies. There’s a commitment to authenticity here that’s usually not seen in movies about Hawaii, right down to the organically integrated pidgin. (As Matt remarks to a cousin, their family is “haole as shit.”) Payne’s always been a fantastic observer of place, and it’s no surprise that he brings the same keen eye to a supposed tropical paradise that he brought to the flat suburbs of Nebraska.
At one point, a friend of Alexandra’s says to Matt that the teens work out their problems by “talking about other stuff and having a good time.” That’s as good as any a way to describe the allure of denial and the slow arrival of acceptance, and it’s those two states — and the tension and transition between them — that really define the film. Payne tells a finely crafted tale about how the ones you love are always the ones who can hurt you the most, but not because they want to; it’s because you give more of yourself to them than you do to anyone else, and no gift that generous ever goes undamaged. But maybe that’s the point. In the midst of the chaos that threatens to overtake him, Matt finds a solace in the people who are right there with him. You never really become who you need to be, but at least you have people to help you try and get there.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.