Matt King (George Clooney) returns home from a work meeting one day to find that his adventure-loving wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), has suffered a brain injury while racing a motor boat. Stunned and regretful at his neglect of his wife in the recent past, Matt casts around for things to do with his youngest daughter, the ten year old Scottie (Amara Miller), only to find that Scottie is wayward, lonely, and inclined to give the finger to anyone or anything she doesn't like.
When Matt is gently told by the doctors that Elizabeth's condition is deteriorating and that her will states that she be taken off life support his world starts to disintegrate. Previously Elizabeth had been the one looking after the children while Matt worked vigorously at his law firm. All of a sudden he is faced with two willful girls who swear profusely, are frightfully behaved, and have a barely veiled contempt and bitterness towards both their parents. It is only when Matt goes to the next island over (they live in what ought to be an idyllic Hawaii) to pick up his 17-year-old daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who is in an expensive boarding school/rehab center for naughty girls (she drinks, she likes older men) that we begin to realize why the girls are the way they are.
Alexandra confesses to Matt that she hates her mother because she knows that she is too much like her. She also claims that she caught Elizabeth cheating on Matt. Matt is stunned. He confirms Alex's story with some close friends who admit that Elizabeth had been planning to leave Matt for her lover.
The story thus far is formulaic enough. What causes it to transcend its seemingly mundane subject matter is a superb performance by George Clooney. Super stars like Clooney are rarely able to escape playing versions of themselves in movies that are essentially star vehicles (think Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise). Clooney is astonishing as the bumbling, shambling middle aged dad with a nerdy side-part that almost manages to conceal his good looks.
His unmannered, unaffected, and baldly honest performance as a father faced with trying to help his daughters deal with the ugliness of life: death, dishonesty and infidelity is what makes The Descendants an entrancing film.
His acting is not showy, he does not steal any scene, he does not fall into the trap of playing the maudlin, stricken widower. There are moments of real humour in this film, and a few moments of heartbreak. The scene of Matt saying goodbye to his wife on her death bed is simple, only a minute long, and will probably cause anyone who watches it to feel an awful wrenching of the heart.
We all deal with our own specifically difficult families. We love them, sometimes we hate them, and we are stuck with them. The Descendants is a film where everyone concerned, the characters and the viewer, slowly come to the realisation that in the end, however difficult, the only thing that matters is family.
All DVDs reviewed in this column are available at the writer's favourite DVD store: Music and Expression, Thamel, 01-4700092