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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Descendants

A powerhouse drama of a family, and an island, in trouble

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 29, 2011 -- This is a powerful drama about a family and an island paradise in trouble. Although the scale of the film is bigger and the setting is exotic, this film reminded me a lot of the old Robert Redford film “Ordinary People.” It is a film about a family struggling to come to terms with death and betrayal, as well as a momentous decision involving the fate of an island paradise in Hawaii.

This film is one of the best films of 2011 and should compete for top awards when the Academy Awards roll around. It is set in modern day Hawaii in an extended family which has been entrusted with a large, valuable plot of virgin land. The trustee of the property, Matt King (played by George Clooney of “Up in the Air”), is arranging for the property to be sold because of some legal reason relating to “the rule against perpetuities,” which will force the family to dissolve the trust in seven years. Matt has never spent his share of the inheritence. Like his father before him, he has lived on the income from his law practice, which just happens to be property law. His idea is “You leave your children enough to do something, but not enough to do nothing.”

Other members of the King family have spent their money and want more. There are a number of cousins, and other extended family members who are anxious for the land to be sold to a developer so they can get their hands on millions of dollars. One of those people is Cousin Hugh (played by Beau Bridges of “Stargate: The Ark of Truth”). The story takes place a few days before King family members gather to vote on which multimillion dollar proposal to accept, a local one, or another proposal by a Chicago group. Despite the vote, Matt is the controlling trustee. The final decision is up to him alone. Everything depends on him, the land sale, his wife, his daughters. He just wants to hide.

Matt has to take care of his young daughters, Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) because his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) was recently in a serious boating accident and now lies in a hospital bed, in a coma, unresponsive. If that is not enough, Matt soon discovers a secret which family and friends had kept from him, a secret that is about to make everything, including the land sale, a lot more complicated.

Matt isn't getting much of break from his daughters, either. His youngest, Scottie, is acting out, causing problems at school and at home. She hasn't reacted well to her mother's accident. Alexandra is also causing trouble at school and she is also having major emotional problems because of conflicting feelings about her mother. Matt and Scottie fly to another island, where Alexandra lives at an expensive boarding school. Matt pulls her out and tells her he needs her to help take care of Scottie. “I don't know what to do with her,” he confesses.

Everything gets still more complicated when Matt finds out his wife's coma is irreversible. She is going to die. He and Alexandra will never be able to resolve their emotional issues with Elizabeth. The secrets uncovered in the film lead right back to the real estate sale, further complicating Matt's decision. While the story is a little complicated, it works well. The emotions in the film seem genuine and they come about by way of believable motivations. You would not believe how rare that is in films these days.

The acting is very good, especially the performances of Clooney, Amara Miller, Shailene Woodley, Robert Forster (“Firewall”) who plays Elizabeth's father and Beau Bridges. A surprising casting choice, Matthew Lillard (“Scooby-Doo”) does a fine job in a key dramatic role, that of Brian Speer, real estate agent. I found the character Sid (Nick Krause of “How to Eat Fried Worms”), Alexandra's socially inept friend, annoying, but if you took that character out, you'd lose the funniest scene in the movie. Sid is a big part of the comic relief in the film. It isn't all drama.

Despite the annoying presence of Sid in a lot of scenes (you just want to rap on his head and yell “hello, is anybody in there?”) this remains one of the best movies of the year. It rates an A.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2011 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)