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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
As She Lay Dying
by Donald Levit

Hawaii, The Descendants instructs, is not “permanent vacation” even if its movers and shakers dress like beach bums. For its near two hours, director/co-writer (from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ first novel) Alexander Payne does not ooh-and-aah with postcard beauties. Under more cloud cover than sunshine, it is content with green cliffs and the Kings’ twenty-five-thousand inherited acres sloping to Pacific beaches. That the New York Film Festival Closing Night selection is set in Hawaii is not essential.

The interior landscape of lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) is what matters. He is onscreen throughout, although following an alarming trend, too much exposition and inner emotion are told via his voiceover rather than shown in visuals. Oddly, satisfying as it is, his final decision to go against an extended family vote is not prepared for in either way.

Caucasian features and all, that family descends from native royalty and European missionaries from whom it has inherited that now valuable developer-attractive land. By choice, Matt lives relatively frugally and personally does not need the bonanza, but, scattered over the archipelago, easy-going broke cousins like Hugh (Beau Bridges) are watering at the mouth, very conscious that their trusteeship expires in seven years.

Morally and environmentally laudable and a gift to the future, George’s late decision as head legal trustee is, however, not the center even if considered as ambiguous payback. The ironic hub from which all radiates is his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie, in a thankless part), irreversibly brain damaged in a water-skiing accident and unplugged from life support as per her living will, doctor’s counsel, and husband’s concurrence.

Faithful, loving in his way, George has been too preoccupied to be a good husband or father or observant. The immediate task for this “back-up understudy parent” is to assume direct responsibility for their two daughters and break the painful news. Ten and seventeen, Scottie and Alexandra (Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley, respectively) are at first annoying clichés but, like Clooney’s character, manage to develop as real people worthy of empathy. The same can be said of the older girl’s platonic stoner friend Sid (Nick Krause), who begins by getting deservedly socked in the eye for tactlessness but, having just lost a parent himself, is a chorus whose bluntness speaks truth to and of adults.


Innocent Scottie is for the moment a social problem at school. Dabbling in light teen substance abuse, her potty-mouthed sister has been shipped off to a stricter institution on the “Big Island,” Hawaii, but is brought home to help out with Scottie. Dad has been so caught up in outside interests that he suspects nothing of what has made this elder daughter defiant. By chance, she learned what some of her parents’ friends have known, that mother has been carrying on a for-her serious extramarital affair.

The Islands are small, their society insular, so it is plausible that, equally by chance, she and her previously clueless father ferret out the mother’s lover. Nor is it unlikely that that Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) also be a real-estate agent, a married father with non-blood contact with the Kings, and a financial interest in their acreage coming up for sale.

Father and daughters vent anger, disappointment, sorrow and love at the comatose shell of wife and mother, whose unconscious dying legacy to them lies in their unsurprising bonding in individual and familial regeneration. There is some suspense in whether Speer’s wife Julia (Judy Greer) is to be told in revenge, though she resolves that on her own.

That family-reunion comedy is to arise from death-in-the-family tragedy is obvious throughout. Clooney’s understated modern man is not filled with self-importance, as he learns to appreciate what is truly important in life. Its title referring to all the many present Kings and concretely to Scottie and Alexander, The Descendants is pleasant if easy cinema.

(Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures and rated “R” for language including some sexual references.)

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