Intelligent and entertaining filmmaking,
This review is from: The Descendants [DVD] (DVD)
On the surface The Descendants appears to be a film that is just barely hanging on to respectability: an absent father (George Clooney) suddenly finds himself having to care for his two daughters for the first time after his wife has an accident that puts her in a coma. A coma that she will never wake up from. It sounds like it could go one of two ways: either over-sentimental fluff or depressing tear-jerker. Both are bad options, but the good news is that director Alexander Payne manages to skillfully avoid both.
The Decsendants is only sad on occasion but not depressing, carefully picking its moments for greater emotional punch. But it is never sentimental. In fact, it is frequently a very dark tale as the disjointed family attempt to come to terms with the looming loss of wife and mother, while learning that she was not the person that they believed she was. Secrets are revelead that make the family feel more anger than sadness and the filmmakers are not afraid to make us feel it too.
All of this might be a bit too much if the film lacked comedic relief, but thankfully that is not the case and much of the credit for that must go to the superb cast. In addition to the father, we have his two daughters (one ten and the other seventeen) attempting to cope with the tradgedy in different ways while dealing with their own issiues. The elder daughter also has her 'friend' tag along on various road trips. Seemingly an insensitive if amusing idiot on first impressions, it soon turns out that there is more than meets the eye to his character. The interactions between this disparate group are as often humourous as they are distressing, and they prevent the film from arriving on our screens drenched in depression.
An honourable mention should also go the the cinematography. Emotionally complicated dramas are rarely concerned with being easy on the eye, but shooting in Hawaii greatly increased the odds of an attractive film and that is excatly what we get. It all adds up to an experience that can be heavy going at times, but never forgets to put a smile on the face even as it deals with dark subject matter.