Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Descendants (2011) – Review

Review: The Descendants is both a very good character drama and quite funny. The film centers on Matt King, a father who now must be the primary parent for his two daughters after his wife is seriously injured in a boating accident. At the same time, he has the added pressure of being the sole trustee of a major parcel of land that his family wants him to sell (and a minority want him to keep) – and thus he has a decision to make. Writer-director Alexander Payne crafts the film to accentuate the performances. He is not overly interested in having the camera constantly moving or particularly creative or interesting blocking – however, all his efforts have gone into getting the best performances possible from his actors and letting them play to their highest potential on the screen in an organic way. And in this, the film is a huge success (and features two of my favorite performances of the year).That is not to say that the film does not have a good aesthetic style – because it does. Payne pays homage to the beauty of Hawaii in the film, and there is certainly a warmth and tenderness to how the state, it people and the land is regarded and spoken about. To an extent, one might even read it as having a feeling of nostalgic sadness for nature in the view of commercialization and civilization polluting it. Hawaii, its heritage and culture play a role in the film, though more so in setting the tone than directly influencing the narrative and characters (in that, this film could have taken place anywhere and worked, but Hawaii makes for a great backdrop). The relationship between Matt and his daughter Alexandra is the highlight of the film (both actors giving phenomenal performances). Payne does a great job with their dynamic – where it starts to where it ends. It feels like a very natural progression, but at the same time it is fresh, engaging and utterly enjoyable. There is a certain spark when they are in scenes together and yet (again) they feel very real – not as if the actors are acting or trying to be more than they should. They are low-key but hit all the dramatic points perfectly. The other thing that Payne does very well is have all the ancillary characters actually both serve a purpose and exist in a real space – they are not there just to take up space or chew up time. This is something that is actually not often the case, and it comes down to having a strong script to build on and a fluid narrative with all the choices contributing to the journey of the main characters. And in this, Payne has made a wonderful film. If there is one criticism, the pacing is a tad slow at the beginning and the voiceover narration does not feel as organic in the beginning, but it is used to get a lot of the character and plot exposition out of the way without taking up time and scenes. It feels as though we have all this information forced on us, instead of letting it play out. But given the narrative, it is for the best to have it all frontloaded so the narrative can move on to the meatier drama and story.  The great performances, dialogue and overall narrative all contribute to The Descendants being one of the better character pieces of the year.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Alexander Payne has made five features. (And along with Sideways) The Descendants might be his best to date. He has established himself as one of the best auteur filmmakers to emerge out of the 2000s, particularly when it comes to dramedy and garnering great comedic but sad performances. The Descendants is a beautiful film visually, taking place in Hawaii with its landscapes, but also the cinematography of Phedon Papamichael does not hurt (he is one of the best working today). His photography of the state and its wonders wins over the viewer in regards to the decision Matt King makes in the end. Payne’s choice of Hawaiian guitar music is also very good given the setting and tone. Jane Ann Stewart’s production design fits the film very well – the viewer really gets a sense of the culture and lifestyle just from her sets and overall design work. But really, this is an actors’ film – and they are all very good. Judy Greer and Robert Forster are the standouts among the many small supporting roles, while newcomers Nick Krause and Amara Miller give mini-breakthrough performances. Graduating from ABC Family (and the show The Secret Life of the American Teenager) Shailene Woodley gives one of the best performances of the year (let alone breakthrough or supporting). She is full of spunk and attitude, but also has tenderness and warmth behind the façade. She plays off George Clooney very well. I cannot wait to see what she does next. Clooney (having a good year, also directing and acting in the very good The Ides of March) is perfect in the role of Matt King. He seems so out of his depth as the character that it works enormously well. He still has some of that swagger that he is known for but brings a lot of vulnerability to the role as well.

Summary & score: The Descendants is a fantastic character drama, built upon brilliant performances, beautiful scenery and sharp writing. 9/10

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