Foul! I hear you cry. This is all about a rich lawyer whose wife is injured joy-riding in Hawaii, leaving him to take care of his spoiled daughters as he hems and haws about what to do with a royal inheritance. Sure you can relate to it, if you're a whiny upper-middle class white person familiar with tropical locales.
While these facts are all in some way true of the film (and the aforementioned demographic describes a hefty number of U of T students), to characterize it in such a fashion is not just uncharitable, but exposes a lack of humanity suggesting a mild anti-social disorder, or more likely just exposes that you actually didn't see the movie.
I'll admit that in the opening fifteen minutes, while we are being introduced to Matt King (George Clooney), his comatose wife, and the luscious Hawaiian land plot passed down to him from his ancestors, I had suspicions that this was merely an excuse for director Alexander Payne to go to Hawaii and hang out with George Clooney.
While I still hold these suspicions, my attitude began to change upon meeting Matt's daughters. Scottie is a simple and restless 10-year-old and Alex (Shailene Woodley) her imaginably impatient and standoffish 17-year-old sister.
Soon after hearing the news that her mother will shortly be disconnected from life support, Alex apprises her father of some dark deeds in which his wife was involved before her accident. Matt proceeds to develop an obsession over his wife's actions with the help of his daughters, as he struggles to decide whether or not to make his cousins rich by selling off the family's land to resort developers.
Payne's ability to let us see Hawaii as a home rather than a vacation destination instantly allows us to imagine ourselves somewhere amid Matt's familial quagmire, and yet no singular element of his style can be credited as the one which affords us this view.
This talent for invisibly handing perspective off to the audience is one Payne has been developing in each of his films, and comes to its greatest fruition here. The characters' revelations need not be declared but merely suggested, and the whole world of their emotional history is opened.
This can give the sense that the film always just misses the mark of resonance; being pedestrian where it could have been shocking. But Payne doesn't require bone-chilling moments when, over the course of his characters' journeys, your soul has been moved clear across the room without you even knowing it.
While I'm no stranger to the feeling of going to the movies to feel like a stranger, to watch the capers of wild and wonderful men and women light years away from myself, sometimes a filmmaker's greatest achievement is not to dazzle us with the fantastic, but to show us the familiar. In this regard, The Descendants is a masterstroke.