While the prospect of sitting through a film in which a family tries to pick up the pieces of their lives as one of their own sits at death's door can often be a daunting one, especially if you've experienced such loss in your own life, Alexander Payne's latest feature The Descendants adeptly skirts around the tedium, melodrama, and depression into which most grief-driven fare often tumbles.
At this point, Payne's curriculum vitae should speak for itself. In his last three features--Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways*--Payne and long-time writing partner Jim Taylor** combined to made films that while often dealing with protagonists who should have been little more than sad-sacks ended up carving out a niche that saw them crafting much less depressive films than the subject (and protagonist) would otherwise have been if in the hands of others.
**I just found out that Payne and Taylor were two of the three credited screenwriters for Jurassic Park III. What. The. Fuck?
This time around Taylor isn't in the writing mix, just wearing the hat of a producer. In his stead, Payne enlisted the help of Nat Faxon (recognizable to most readers as Garlan Greenbush from Party Down episode "Party Down Company Picnic") and Jim Rash (Dean Pelton from Community). Working from the Kaui Hart Hemmings debut novel by the same name, Payne & Co. have given the movie-going public a movie that doesn't simply deal with death in the typical way of blindly honoring the dead.
As Matt King (George Clooney) learns shortly after his wife's accident, his wife had been cheating. The marriage wasn't exactly on the best of terms, but the typical course in the woman being kept alive by machines is deified is not the one that is run here. In the wake of his wife's boating accident that has rendered her a vegetable, Matt must connect with his daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley of The Secret Life of the American Teenager) and Scottie (Amara Miller). All the while, he must come to his own terms with his strained marital relationship without being able to talk to his spouse. In attempting to reconcile the bombshell that her infidelity was, he tries to balance his duties as sole trustee (in a trust set to expire of his large family's 25,000 acres of virgin land on Kauai with trying to work through the grieving process while trying to step up from his previous role as "back-up parent." He accomplishes the latter by bringing his daughters--and Alexandra's quasi-beau Sid (Nick Krause)--along with him, working through their grief together.
Delving into the plot any further is largely pointless in talking abut the film. It is not the plot of The Descendants that sets it apart. Rather it is the rawness and breadth of emotions covered therein. As Matt works through the anger, pain, confusion, and sorrow, his journey is one that is quietly but intensely affective. The gamut of emotions that Matt runs are easily relatable. The audience can place themselves in his shoes with little thought or energy spent. The verity of his emotional sojourn is naturally evident; quite simply, The Descendants attains a level of truth that most films do not.
What matters the most here is that The Descendants feels genuine. There are lighter moments and clear laughs (much of what happens with Sid), but these aspects of the film are simply complimentary. The backbone of the film is the natural handling of grief with which Payne and Co. have imbued it. At the film's pre-coda close, this obedience to truth pays dividends and the audience is left touched.