Alexander Payne had one of the most promising starts of any of the filmmakers in the Class of ’99, as I like to call them, and “Election” is one of those films that I find always rewarding to revisit. “Sideways” and “About Schmidt” are both strong, mature pieces of work, and they both demonstrate a clear sense of voice as well as a very strong sense of place. Locations play a major part in his work, helping to define who these people are and giving them a proper landscape in which to play out their issues.
And, yes, like his earlier films, “The Descendents” captures a character in crisis, someone facing a major life-changing event and having to redefine themselves as a result. And while it does not carry the same satiric sting that some of his work is noted for, I think it’s warm and human and beautifully made, and it is one more triumph in a long list of recent triumphs for George Clooney as a movie star and an actor both.
Matt King (Clooney) is a lawyer who lives in Hawaii, part of a large sprawling family that can trace their roots on one side back to King Kamehameha. With one side being native Hawaiian and one side being Haole, they hold a very specific place in Hawaiian culture, and they also own an ungodly amount of land on one of the islands. Thanks to conditions of the trust that was set up for the family property, they must eventually unload the land, and they’ve decided to sell it. The only question remaining is who they’re going to sell it to, and that’s what Matt is busy with when his wife Elizabeth (Patti Hastie) is in a speedboating accident which leaves her comatose. Matt is, as he describes it, the “back-up parent,” and he’s never really been fully responsible for his daughters Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). Now, suddenly, he’s got to step into the role of authority figure and active parent, and he’s not quite sure how to do that.
Scottie is ten years old and already a handful, but Alex, at seventeen, is the real problem. She’s been shuffled off to boarding school because she and her mother weren’t getting along, and Matt never really understood the source of that tension. When he sees that things are getting worse with Elizabeth, he goes to bring Alex home and that’s when she tells him what happened: she caught her mother having an affair. That news, the pressure of the impending sale, and the state of his wife’s deteriorating health sends Matt into a tailspin, and with the girls in tow, he sets off on a trip that takes them to three different islands, puts them in touch with family they haven’t seen in a while, and introduces them to some surprising new people as well.
The film moves in Hawaiian time, appropriately enough, and there’s a quiet urgency to it that never feels forced or overplayed. Payne’s very good with large ensembles, and I like that he’s filled this one out with a number of faces that you recognize, as well as many you don’t. It makes the world feel more lived in, and even when you do know someone like Matthew Lillard or Beau Bridges, we’ve never seen them in this context or used like this. As Matt struggles to understand what made his wife cheat on him, and as he tries to decide what to do about the guy, who he doesn’t know at all, he also finds himself learning who his daughters are, and that process is some of my favorite material in the film. Dealing with children is always a discovery, because no matter how much you’d like to put them in a box or think that you’ve got them figured out, they will surprise you constantly. I still find myself amazed every day as I talk with my boys that these fascinating human beings somehow started with me, but that they are not extensions of me in any way. The performance by Shailene Woodley is mature and nuanced and lovely, and there are many moments when it’s obvious she is the one offering wisdom to Clooney, and he’s the one who needs the help. It’s not done in that annoying sitcom manner where the kids all talk like 50-year-olds, either. There are just some things that Alex has a better handle on, and she has a strength that she got from her mother that Matt has relied on his whole life. Now he’s just got to find it in a different person, and his dawning realization that things have changed and will never change back is truly painful.
I like that Hawaii isn’t just a backdrop here, forgotten scenery, but is part of the thematic richness of the picture. Our responsibility to all of those who came before us and all of those who will follow is something that is almost never addressed in film, but this movie finds a simple, emotionally direct way to make the point. Of all the places I’ve traveled in my life, Hawaii is one of my favorites, and if I could make a life there, I would. My family feels the same way, and there’s something about the place that I find magical. It recharges me. Matt knows that he is lucky to have ended up in the position to make this choice about the future of the land, and he has to weigh the desires of his family, his community, and his conscience, and no matter what he does, he’ll leave someone upset.
I think Clooney, like Brad Pitt, plays both sides of the movie star/actor equation well. Movie stars don’t have to act to be great. We are drawn to their charisma, and they can just serve as the center around which everything else in a film orbits based on who they are, with roles designed for their particular personalities. What I love about Clooney is how he tweaks that, how he can subvert our expectations of him, how he can deflate his own cool when it’s called for. He’s as good her as he’s ever been. The whole movie is filled with lovely work by the cast, including Rob Huebel and Mary Birdsong as good friends to Matt and Elizabeth, the very funny Nick Krause as a young friend of Alex’s named Sid, and especially Judy Greer, who has often been cast as the bitchy best friend in things, but who brings such unexpected emotion to her part here that she was the one who finally broke me. I was also particularly impressed by Robert Forster in a small role that is without vanity, and I’m reminded just how much soul that guy can project in a few short moments of screentime. He’s hard as nails for most of his screen time, so when we do see a bit of tenderness, it’s devastating.
Phedon Papamichael’s photography is warm and and natural, but it’s never just an advertisement for “Wow, isn’t Hawaii pretty?” Overall, tech contributions are invisible and impressive, and for me, the entire thing comes together in the final shot of the movie, where Payne sums it all up with quiet assurance. This may not be the savage satire that some Payne fans were waiting for, but I suspect it will resonate deeply with audiences when Fox Searchlight releases it.
“The Descendants” arrives in theaters November 18, 2011.