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If there’s anything true about film it’s that there really are no rules – the only rule is: does it work? This rule is on display very well in The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s adaptation of the Kaui Hart Hemming’s book of the same name. Fortunately, in the case of this film the answer is yes.

That said, a couple of ‘rules’ of scriptwriting are broken with relish. First, ‘don’t overuse narration.’ The film opens with a lengthy ‘tell don’t show’ narration by George Clooney (playing Matthew King) that outlines his current predicament: the fact that his wife is in a coma, he has more responsibility for his children than he can handle, and in tandem has to oversee the sale of his family’s land trust on Kauai to a group of investors — all with the requisite family politics.  It is within this very tragic, real, and hilariously portrayed stew that The Descendants unveils itself.

The second rule even more liberally broken is that characters should have a clear motivation, usually a single overarching motivation that drives them.  Now I’m sure I’ll get a script consultant or two who would disagree with me on this point, but the major breakthrough of this film is that the motivation of George Clooney’s character changes as often as the weather over Princeville, Kauai. He is at once angry, vindictive, forgiving, mature, selfless and victimized, often concurrently.

Interestingly, this film ends up being much better at depicting how human beings actually behave than any reality show out there. Reality shows, for the most part, are fairly well ‘scripted’ by the producers in terms of the myths that they project and the lines of behavior they coach the ‘stars’ to exhibit. The result is often a flawed mirror of behavior in that the situations that the reality stars are placed in are patently false and unrealistic.  In its own beguiling way, The Descendants shows why artists and scripted material remain relevant as they continue to be effective messengers and fulfill the important role of storytellers in society  — i.e.,  artists that communicate to the group in such a way as to maintain social cohesion and/or critique social ills. As such, a fictional reality can often be more ‘real’ than reality itself.

How so?  In but one example, the film shows how our current crop of American children seem to have very little fear of their parents and are often vocal in their opinions aimed at their parents on  subjects (such as masturbation and pornography) that would have been inappropriate twenty years or so. I know if I said such things to my father when I was a kid he would have cold-cocked me in the mouth, much like George Clooney’s wife’s father cold-cocked the insensitive Sid (hilariously played by Nick Krause) for making fun of his wife’s Alzheimer’s. These generational differences are rarely, if ever, depicted in any ‘reality’ show out there, although the Disney Channel might hint at them in an obtuse way. While TV series such as The Cosby Show used to effectively reconcile (although some might say gloss over) generational, class and racial differences, this type of programming has fallen out of vogue.

Because of these well-drawn generational schisms, The Descendants will go down as one of the few modern films in recent memory that deals effectively with these differences and outlines the issues of discipline, permissiveness, bitterness, shallowness,  and, ultimately connectedness that binds not only families, but generations of families that have specific responsibilities to leave their children in as good of shape as their parents left them.  As a kind of inverted Dallas for our modern, liberal age, The Descendants removes the guile, revenge and hatred evident in most generational melodramas and replaces it with humor, pathos and the occasional bruised ego. Finally, a message of spiritual reconciliation trumps all feelings of ill will.

Another ‘issue’ dealt with in The Descendants is one of class, although obliquely. I would draw a comparison here to Jane Austen, whose class-conscious works often were indirectly aimed at creating a feeling of reconciliation between the upper and lower classes (usually through marriage) and to as a result create the sense of a common human bonding and ‘Britishness.’ While George Clooney as Matt is distinctly a member of the 1%, he is also a human being filled with a kaleidoscope of emotions. He is pulled, as most modern Americans are, in a multitude of directions at once, and at the same time trying to live in a way that is consistent with his values.  Showing a ‘one-percenter’ in this light is interesting in this current time of rampant protests. On one hand it is completely accidental, on the other hand it is the kind of humanism that is acceptable to those with money and is (again obliquely) an attempt to create a sense of a common humanity, bound in this case to a land called America.  However, I would say it isn’t accidental in this sense: the one-percent  who own the production companies that make films like The Descendants would find the depiction of the King family very familiar in terms of the broad situation that combines privilege and pain. As such, the content of The Descendants is very much non-threatening to the powers that be, and thus acceptable to all classes.

There are a series of stellar performances in The Descendants — including Mr. Clooney’s — that will likely land the cast several awards in the upcoming season. Along with Clooney, Shailene Woodley (Alexandra), Amara Miller (Scottie) and Nick Krause (Sid)  form a perfect ensemble.  Moreover, the film’s message of class, familial and generational unity and reconciliation will undoubtedly continue to allow it to do quite well at the box office as people cling to the film’s much needed message of forgiveness and hope for the future.  For this the filmmakers and producers deserve our congratulations and every accolade they receive.

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