Every year at awards season, there is a film that rises from the blockbuster big-budget rubble to steal everyone's heart. In 2006, it was Little Miss Sunshine. In 2008, it was Slumdog Millionaire, and in 2009, it was The Hurt Locker. This "underdog" film (a deceiving title, may I add) becomes the darling of the season; people root for it, they believe in it, and yet - people still don't go out and see it? It is a curious phenomenon. This year, Alexander Payne's The Descendants tries to steal that title, and, well...it doesn't quite succeed.
Alexander Payne is a talented storyteller who always manages to get the most from his actors, but - I confess - he is not one of my favorite directors. His über-natural, slice-of-life style is not my cup of tea. So, when The Descendents set me up for a story about death, infidelity, and family relationships, I was somewhat disappointed to see something more akin to a home video. The story follows Matt King, who struggles with the repricussions of an accident leaving his wife in a coma. The self-professed "back-up parent" takes full care of his two daughters, Scottie King (Amara Miller) and Alexandra King (Shailene Woodley), but things change for the worse when the family discovers that their mother will not recover from her coma and that she was, prior to the accident, having an affair.
Although Matt King claims to be the 'secondary' parent and Alexandra fulfills the 'troubled child' role, neither of these problems are given any real weight. King never struggles with parenting more than seeking advice from his daughter. Only one scene shows Alexandra intoxicated and there is no subsequent slip-up or even discussion of her prior drug abuse. Maybe these family issues aren't given their proper attention because the plot is splintered between their inter-personal relationships, King's imminent decision to sell a chunk of natural Hawaiian land, and King's attempt to discover the details of his wife's affair.
The story moves at an appropriate speed for it's location; Hawaii. There is very little urgency and, at times, scenes run long enough to make you aware of pacing. The light-hearted, traditional hawaiian music sets a contradictory (and therefore comical) tone to the action in the film.
A ray of light throughout the film is the character of Sid (Nick Krause) - the somewhat ambiguous role of Alexandra's friend who tags along with the family. Krause handles the surfer-guy role with ease and power. In a particularly moving scene where King reaches out to the brainless teenager, Sid reveals things about himself honestly, but still through a veil of coolness that keeps him believable. In fact, all the actors do a breathtaking job handling the intelligent dialogue with a breezy naturalism that makes the audience feel even more voyeuristic.
The most tender moments happen when various family members discover that their mother, daughter, wife, friend will not survive the come and is, in fact, going to die. Amara Miller plays her discovery with a remarkable intelligence for such a young actress.
It is possible that the film doesn't leave an impact because there is simply too much plot. Had it been a film about uncovering an affair, or a film about a family losing their mother - one or the other, not both at the same time - it would have been much more memorable and, I believe, more moving film. Additionally, Payne's decision to place the focus dead center in most of his shots becomes boring. Still, the acting is great and I would expect recognition in February.