If The Descendants was set in any other state than Hawaii, it would have been a completely different (probably worse) film. What a difference a location makes. Think of how many movies you see on a regular basis where the location is basically interchangeable or even unremarkable. Not in this case. It’s a mean trick because not only is it a gorgeously eye-melting location, the film uses the location to also support a meaningful environmental and societal cause for the local Hawaiian communities.
Clooney’s critically applauded little film is almost a companion piece to Up in the Air, the last smart, memorable little indie drama he did. I never would have thought to compare the styles of director Alexander Payne (The Descendants) and Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), but if you watched them back-to-back you’d almost guess they were the same director.
Payne’s style in Descendants is a little less heavy on the schlubby man spectacle than his previous efforts, Sideways and About Schmidt, but nonetheless utterly depressing. This is well-traversed and familiar territory for Payne, and he handles the material well, but it’s the addition of the young daughters to the story that really bring out the best in the film. Their interaction with Clooney as the disaffected father whose just coming to his senses thanks to a jarring turn of events, is typical, but welcomed.
Like most movies in this vein the children seem to be more observant and in touch with reality than the adults – isn’t that always the case? Maybe they see life from a narrower focus, preventing them from having to deal with the added pressures of literally everything else in the world… or, maybe, it’s actually the other way around. Either way, the film deserves all the credit it’s received; superb, engaging acting and an enthralling – albeit soap-operatic script hold up the simple, straightforward visuals (and really how can you make a film in Hawaii without an audience being enamored?). The fact is though, you probably won’t ever have the urge to revisit the movie in the future, it’s just not that kind of movie.