Skip to content

Movie Review: The Descendants

November 25, 2011

The Descendants – A Fox Searchlight Release

Release Date: November 18th (Limited)

November 25th, 2011 (Wide)

Rated 14A for coarse languge and mature themes

Running time: 115 minutes

Alexander Payne (dir.)

Alexander Payne (screenplay)

Nat Faxon (screenplay)

Jim Rash (screenplay)

Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings

George Clooney as Matt King

Shailene Woodley as Alexandra King

Amara Miller as Scottie King

Nick Krause as Sid

Patricia Hastie as Elizabeth King

Matthew Lillard as Brian Speer

Judy Greer as Julie Speer

Beau Bridges as Cousin Hugh

Robert Forster as Scott Thorson

Kaui Hart Hemmings as Matt’s Secretary Noe

©Fox Searchlight.  All Rights Reserved.

Matt King (George Clooney), Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) in The Descendants.

Our reviews below:


The Descendants Review By John C.

**** (out of 4)

Over the opening scene of The Descendants, we fly over the beautiful scenery of Hawaii.  These images are quickly changed to those of people living on the streets, and Matt King (George Clooney) sitting in a hospital room at the bedside of his comatose wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie).  This seamless blend of beauty and heartache, humour and drama is handled so well by director Alexander Payne that every second of the film feels undeniably real.  This is one of the best movies of the year.

With his wife in a coma after a boating accident, Matt King is faced with the job of being the “back-up parent” to his two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley).  Scottie is constantly seeking attention, and Alex has just been picked up from a rebellious night at boarding school.  Constantly at her side is the laid back Sid (Nick Krause).  Being a direct descendant of Hawaiin royalty, Matt is also in the middle of deciding whether or not to sell a prime section of land that has been passed down through the family for generations.

His wife’s condition isn’t changing, and amidst all of the drama he finds out that she was involved with another man.  As it was in the excellent source novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants is both brutally honest and brilliantly observational, never veering into melodrama and always keeping its tight grip on the fully realized characters.  There are moments of heartache, but these scenes are handled in a deeply moving way that always feel real.  The moments of comic relief feel natural and never forced or out of place.  From beginning to end, this feels like real life.

A lot of this is due to the perfect balance between brilliant screenwriting and excellent acting from the entire cast.  George Clooney knocks it out of the park, using his signature changes in facial expressions to deliver a masterful performance that garners sympathy and sometimes breaks our heart.  Shailene Woodley is his match, giving an equally nuanced performance that deserves serious awards recognition as she seamlessly walks the line between teenager and adult.  This is her first big screen role, and it’s a promising debut.  Equally excellent is Amara Miller, who had never acted a day in her life, but puts a lot of other child actors to shame.

The Descendants is a moving and beautifully acted film, that believably deals with grief and loss without ever once veering into melodrama.  It’s also an unforgettable portrait of a family finally coming together through tragedy and a man who has to step up and be a father for the first time in his life, right through to the bittersweet final scene.


The Descendants Review by Erin V.  

**** (Out of 4)

Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants stars George Clooney as Matt King, a man who finds himself having to really be a father to his two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (newcomer Amara Miller), and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), for the first time after a tragic accident has left his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) in a coma.

As Matt deals with preparing for the worst, he also starts to discover things about his wife he didn’t know.  King being the descendant of a Hawaiian Princess (many years back), he also has something else on his plate.  His family’s trust owns a large piece of land that he is executor over.  It is his job to find a buyer for it and take all of his cousins’ wishes into account.

All of this blends together beautifully with the good script adaptation – as in the book, the relationships, twists and turns, etc., never feeling contrived or melodramatic.  The film is also very nice to watch, with good cinematography, art direction, and editing, and the costume design matches the setting, allowing us to believe the film to authentically be taking place in Hawaii.  The acting is all superb, in particular from the three leads (Clooney, Woodley, and Miller).  It is hard to find good (American) child actors these days it seems, so it is welcome to see young actors holding their own against the likes of Clooney – and not just seeming like they are ‘acting’ through the roles rather than being the characters.

The Descendants goes to wider release this weekend, and should do well.  It opened in limited last week, and made a higher per theatre average in the USA than Breaking Dawn, breaking into the top 10 with only 29 theatres.  Sure to garner awards attention come Oscar time, The Descendants is one of the most moving quiet human dramas of the year, and along with the other categories (adapted screenplay, acting, etc.), deserves a nomination for Best Picture.


The Descendants Review by Nicole

**** (out of 4)

The Descendants is a well made and believable drama about one family who is changed by tragedy.  George Clooney stars as Matt King, a father of two who must care for his daughters after his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is seriously injured in a boating accident.  She is comatose and on her last days, and Matt must break the news to his girls, the rebellious Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who is always with her dopey boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), whose foul mouth provides great comic relief.  But along with Elizabeth’s gradual decline, Matt has to deal with an affair that Elizabeth was having.  Additionally, Matt must also settle an issue involving land that he inherited from his royal Hawaiian ancestors.

The Descendants is a simple yet moving film.  Spanning a week or so, we get to really know and sympathize with the King family.  Brilliantly underplayed, with no melodrama, makes this movie not only a contender for George Clooney as Best Actor, but possibly Best Picture as well.  Young stars Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley are also sure to be noticed.

The Descendants is a well made and heartfelt film about life, death and family.  This is definitely a movie worth seeing.


The Descendants Review by Maureen

**** (out of 4)

When I first read Kaui Hart Hemmings novel The Descendants I remember thinking how in the right hands, it would make a great movie.  Director Alexander Payne managed to keep the wonderful dialogue driven tone of the novel and create The Descendants, a movie that is deserving of many awards nominations.  In particular, recognition needs to go to the actors involved especially George Clooney as the lead character, Matt King.  Newcomers Shailene Woodley as older daughter Alexandra and Amara Miller as 10-year-old daughter Scottie also give amazing performances.

The Descendants is a drama, but never once feels melodramatic.  Set in beautiful Hawaii, lawyer and landowner Matt King has his life turned upside down when in the span of a month, his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) ends up in a brain-dead comatose state, his family’s ancestral land is up for grabs by developers and his two daughters are acting out as they all try to adjust to their new family dynamics.

Narrated by Matt, the story follows the family as they travel around Hawaii in the days before Elizabeth’s death to inform her family and friends and give them a chance to make peace and say their goodbyes.  Through their journey Matt gets to know his daughters better and learns about his wife’s infidelity.  With Alexandra, her laid-back boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), and Scottie at his side, Matt is able to keep it together and do what needs to be done to get them through the ordeal of letting Liz go.

There are so many touching and funny scenes between the characters.  Both daughters are fresh-mouthed yet never obnoxious.  Boyfriend Sid keeps them all grounded with his simple and honest take on situations.  Elizabeth’s father Grandpa Scott (Robert Forster) is the one who pushes Matt emotionally as he blames him for Liz’s coma.  On top of it Matt has to deal with all his cousins led by cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) in the decision about whether or not to sell their ancestral land.

The Descendants is beautifully shot with scenes of Hawaii forming the backdrop to many scenes.  The authentic Hawaiian music (mostly ukuleles) that forms the background to much of the film keeps the tone light despite the dramatic plot line.  This is a completely believable story.  The dialogue and the acting feel real from beginning to end.  I loved everything about this movie and found it to be very close to the original book.

This is one of those movies that is memorable on so many levels.  The Descendants is worth seeing in theatres and will be worth seeing again on DVD.  Watch for this one come awards time.


The Descendants Review by Tony

**** (out of 4)

The Descendants takes place in Hawaii where lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) is dealing with several crises at once. His wife is comatose on life support after a boating accident. Matt’s cousins want him to sell a large piece of pristine land inherited from Hawaiian royalty to a developer so they can all be rich. Both his daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) are rebelling under all the stress, with Alex’s boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) along for the ride. Before life support has to be removed, Matt decides to tell relatives and close friends so they can say goodbye. When Alex tells her father about his wife’s infidelity with real estate agent Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), they confront him, leading to an interesting outcome.

Directed by Alexander Payne, The Descendants is a perfect realization of the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings. The brilliant script gives us time to know and sympathize with each main character brought to life in perfectly believable situations by an excellent cast. Just like in real life there are touches of humour and tragedy over the running time of just under two hours, all amid the beauty of Hawaii’s landscape and music, leaving us neither bored nor wanting more at the end.


Consensus: Set against the beautiful backdrop of Hawaii, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants is a brilliantly acted and very moving film that believably deals with the emotional journey of a family coming together through loss.  **** (Out of 4)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2011 10:30 am

    Clooney and everybody else included is great but it’s really Payne who shines as the writer bringing out some funny humor but not without forgetting about the real rich moments of human drama. Good review. Check out mine when you get the chance.


    • November 26, 2011 3:49 pm

      Agreed – all of these elements are excellent. Also worthwhile is the equally great source novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, which the screenplay closely follows.

      Thanks for reading and including your own thoughts on The Descendants,

      -John C.


  2. Leelee permalink
    August 7, 2012 12:59 pm

    My favorite film of last year. Thought it should have taken the Oscar over “The Artist”, and George Clooney deserved best actor.. Just saying…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: