Last night I saw a special, early screening of The Descendants at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge. I had modest expectations going into the film. It has received rave reviews since it’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, and was immediately considered an Oscar’s frontrunner, but I don’t love Alexander Payne’s films. I never really fully connected with them. A large part of that may be because I saw them when I was younger, and I’ve grown as a film viewer since then, but his name doesn’t mean must see in the same way Darren Aronofsky, Alfonso Cuaron, Spike Jonze, Steve McQueen, Paul Thomas Anderson, or Paul Greengrass’s name does. Also, his films tend to be about people I can’t always relate to (upper class characters). Since, George Clooney plays a rich common man (as common as George Clooney can be) I was a little worried.
That feeling didn’t go away when The Descendants began. The film opens with George Clooney’s narration. He’s talking about how hard it is to be rich and live in Hawaii. Typically, I don’t like narration. I think it’s incredibly hard to do well. Most of the time it feels lazy. In my opinion, the narration in The Descendants is on the nose and expository, and it’s used the first third of the film. Another frustrating aspect of the first third of the film was the sexist perspective the film was taking. Maybe I’m hyper aware to social issues because of my background in Sociology but there were a few moments I couldn’t believe. The male characters in the film seem to believe women should do what they want them to do. I spent sometime trying to determine if the film was trying to critique patriarchy, but I don’t believe it is because the film is putting you on George Clooney’s side. I was worried the narration and sexism would continue through out the entire film, but there was one shot that kept me invested. When George Clooney tells his daughter some upsetting news she dives underwater and begins crying. It was brilliant and very powerful An example of what the film was capable of if it got ride of the narration.
Luckily, the second third of the film has no narration at all. The story tells itself instead of George Clooney telling us the story and it’s so much more engaging. In fact, The Descendants is very very good once the narration ends and sexism isn’t as intense. It’s very funny and emotionally engaging. We begin to really care about the characters and appreciate the great performances. One aspect of the film that I loved was the characters grew in a natural way and it showed the good and bad sides of characters. There’s still a few hiccups (like a completely random and distracting wipe cut and some poor child acting that made me think the girl from this one scene had to be someones daughter) but I cared about what was happening to this family. I cared most about Shailene Woodley‘s character (yes the actress from The Secret Life of the American Teenager). Shailene’s performance was real, understated, and powerful. A lot of people in the theater were crying. I did not. The Descendants didn’t affect me in that way, but no one in my life has ever died. I can’t relate to that experience and if I had I probably would bawled.