The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010) was a highlight of last year’s BFI London Film Festival. This year’s highlight looks set to be The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011), a film similar in many ways. At the dramatic centre of The Kids Are All Right was the desire of a lesbian couple’s two kids to learn more about their ‘father’ (sperm donor). As its title suggests, lineage is also a concern in The Descendants. George Clooney plays Matt King, the father of a family of mixed ancestry: half European colonialists, half Hawaiian royalty. The family’s ancient history is important in this film because a large tract of coastal land that has been passed down for generations must now be sold. It is up to Matt to decide whether to accept a lucrative offer from developers who will transform the virgin wilderness into a resort. Matt’s immediate family is a more pressing concern, though: his wife is in a coma after a power boat accident, leaving Matt to look after their two daughters, 17-year-old Alexandra, and 11-year-old Scottie. A workaholic, Matt no longer knows quite how to relate to his kids, but knows that he must do his best to stand in for their mother.
Like The Kids Are All Right, The Descendants takes a fresh perspective on modern American family life. Although Hollywood films commonly show kids misbehaving and being rude to their parents, the particular scenarios and language the kids use in The Descendants feels both more spontaneous and more authentic: Matt’s daughters and their friends say surprising things, sometimes shocking things, but not gratuitously. Alexandra’s boyfriend Sid comes out with some incredibly stupid statements, but has his funny and personable sides too. Sid also has his own sorrows to deal with: as is often the case in real life, such details are only revealed later, as we get to know him better. The Descendants is one of those films that is understanding towards all its characters, even the least likable ones, allowing every character their reasons and dignity. Matt’s father-in-law, for example, is aggressive and unfair in his criticisms, but just when he seems to have been dismissed as a grumpy old man, there is a candid shot of him watching over his comatose daughter in hospital, and the audience can appreciate the powerful emotions he must be experiencing.
In spite of their serious and potentially heart-rending subject matter, both The Descendants and The Kids Are All Right are highly watchable films: their engaging narrative, original comedy and, last but not least, big-name stars ensure their appeal to a broad audience. Last year, some people were complaining that aside from featuring lesbian parents, The Kids Are All Right was essentially a conservative film in its assertion of family values. The Descendants also centres on a well-to-do middle class family, valorises ancestry and presents a Hawaii where all residents are firmly in touch with the region’s specificity, from their dress and decor to their use of local greetings. At the same time, the film immediately challenges the romanticism commonly associated with warm climates: over shots of average people in Hawaii who are old, overweight, or in poor health, Matt introduces the film in voiceover, saying that when someone is ill, idyllic surroundings don’t change a thing.
One of director Alexander Payne’s previous successes, Sideways (2004), concerned a pair of middle-aged men going on a tour of California’s vineyards, not necessarily a subject that would interest everyone. The story of a family with a comatose mother also doesn’t sound like the most engaging film, but in both cases, with an outstanding script Payne manages to make the subject appealing. In The Descendants, he doesn’t achieve this by avoiding the pain of illness entirely: there are moments in the film that are very sad. Yet the film balances these moments with a lot of comedy, interesting dialogue, and character study. Moreover, he ventures into risky territory by allowing the family to criticise the mother, even though she is very ill and can’t defend herself. Again, this is not exploited for mere shock value: while it does give perspective, illness doesn’t erase a person’s mistakes. The Descendants recognises the spectrum of feelings that a family may go through in such a situation.