Title: The Descendants

Director: Alexander Payne

Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Judy Greer

Release Date: Out Now

The only thing The Descendants has going against it, as it hits Irish theatres, is high expectations. Mercifully, if any film seems capable of standing up to such hype, it’s this one.

Directed by Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways) and set in Hawaii, The Descendants tells the tale of lawyer Martin King (George Clooney) in the wake of a boating accident, which has left his wife Elizabeth in a terminal coma. Previously a distant, workaholic father, King is thrown into a situation where he must take care of his young daughters. This initially limited premise is quickly expanded upon by a range of complex revelations, not least of which is the discovery that Elizabeth had been having an affair. King is also working to sell a huge plot of land owned by his extended family, which initially prompts discussion of how Hawaii’s land should be treated, but soon devolves into a background catalyst for the main plot.

The film’s principle achievement is how deftly it tackles the conflicting emotions that can come from the death of an individual with whom one had a complicated relationship. Instead of sentimental schmaltz, there is a moving, if occasionally unpleasant humanity at the core of the film. The family’s attempts to express their love regularly boil over into frustrated venting at their comatose matriarch in jarringly blunt moments. Their travels across the islands, informing those close to Elizabeth of her death, even provide some darkly comic moments reminiscent of the director’s previous work.

As much as Clooney’s performance has warranted acclaim, it’s most certainly not the only one worth noting. While he excels in a stoic role, expressing his character’s angst through intense brooding rather than in outbursts, Shailene Woodley’s turn as his boarding school-confined daughter Alex demonstrates a deft range, from adolescent tantrums to mature kindness. A special mention must be given to Judy Greer, whose character’s encounter with King’s wife is arguably the film’s best scene.

If there is any fault to be found here, it’s with The Descendant’s uncomfortable relationship with its setting. In his narration, Clooney’s character reflects on how perceptions of Hawaii are inaccurate and how the family are inextricably bound to the state’s history through a lineage of property-owning ancestors. It seems to build up to a grand reflection on the island that never really occurs, the backdrop staying effectively perfunctory to the storyline, even if it does provide some gorgeous sights. However, enjoyed as a portrait of a dysfunctional family’s struggles, this is an exceptional film.

In a Nutshell: An inspiringly human work with a tragic centre.