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55th BFI London Film Festival: ‘The Descendants’ finds Payne at his intelligent, mature best

The Descendants

Written by Alexander Payne

Directed by Alexander Payne

USA, 2011

It’s hard to believe that it’s been seven long years since Sideways, Alexander Payne’s widely beloved paean to middle aged disappointment, which was so thoroughly embraced by middle aged critics who naturally warmed to a tale of a thwarted writer baffled by the unraveling of life’s rich tapestry, wrestling with his pomegranate demons before bedding a bruised Virginia Madsen. In his follow up film The Descendants, Payne charts similar middle aged angst through the rather smaller demographic of a Hawaiian bred estate agent who discover that his coma afflicted wife was being unfaithful, having been driven into another’s arms due to her unfulfilled appetite for excitement and risk in an otherwise staid and unremarkable life. Obsessed with the identity of the cuckold, Matt King (Clooney, in resigned hangdog mode) enlists the aid of his disgruntled daughters Jess (Amara Miller) and Alex (Shailene Woodley) to confront the culprit, as he simultaneously negotiates the biggest deal of his life, a proposal to sell off his family’s pristine seafront land to some ambitious tourism developers.

What on paper could be a tiresome cliché of a man ‘finding’ himself and making peace with his family unfolds on screen like a Hawaiian hibiscus, graceful and scintillating, with a crepitating script that bursts with genuine pathos. The film is set against a drizzly and overcast tropical paradise, as an early line of voice-over (a favourite technique of Payne) remarks that just because these damaged and sympathetic characters live in a verdant Eden it doesn’t mean their families and relationships aren’t as fucked up as yours. The paradise is invested with a gentle score of authentic Hawaiian ballads which gently set the reflective mood, as Matt traverses the islands and reconnects with his daughters a tangible sense of place and mood is supplicated, the humor and tragedy blending into a genial tropical sojourn.

Clooney delivers the gags with his customary skill and plays the wounded schlep with convincing delicacy,  and a welcome bit part of Robert Forster as his gruffly critical father in law was a pleasant surprise. The real discovery, though, is Shailene Woodley, who reminds me off a younger Reece Witherspoon minus the preppy panache, with her genuine screen presence and an instinctive grasp of comic timing I’m predicting that she’ll go far. During a BFI  hosted screen talk at the festival, Payne mourned the lack of funding for the middle-budget comedies in which he excels (although fans should be reassured that he has two imminent projects for which funding is secured), and whilst  The Descendants probably won’t set the box office alight it has a beating heart, a deft sense of humor, and is worth an  ‘aloha’ from fans of intelligent, mature cinema.

– John McEntee

Visit the official website for the 55th BFI Film Festival