Oscar Nominations 2012: The Descendants strips Hawaii of it's exotic tropes.
Oscar-nominated The Descendants is one of the most critically lauded films of the year, but the 2012 Academy Awards favorite is more than a good flick. In stripping away nearly all of Hawaii's exotic tropes, the Alexander Payne film offers one of the most fascinating looks to date at the lives of everyday people in Hawaii.
The word Hawaii immediately brings to mind images from a glossy guidebook, but The Descendants proposes something altogether different. In the bittersweet film, the images we see of the Pacific state could hardly be described as travel porn. Payne's esteemed script -- adapted closely from the Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel -- digs deeper, taking us beyond the islands' physical beauty.
As Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday put it, 'The Descendants' features Hawaii in its first candid role, demythologizing Hawaii and bringing it into a new post-Obama, Pacific Rim-era relevance.
Indeed it's hard to think of another film set in Hawaii that doesn't bask in the surf and resort scene. Everyone thinks people who live in Hawaii live in paradise, George Clooney's character Matt King says in the film's voice-over. But for the past 23 days, I've lived in a paradise of IVs, urine bags, and tracheal tubes.
The Descendants treats viewers to an occasional glimpse of Hawaii's tantalizing wonders, but sets the natural landscape within the banal life of its protagonists, thus rendering it backdrop for the plot that plays out in the foreground.
The title, Descendants, refers to the group of white missionaries who came to Hawaii in the 1800s and gained control of native lands. George Clooney's King is the descendant of a wealthy white banker and a Hawaiian princess.
There are many descendant families, the film's producer Jim Burke said when the film was released in November. Probably two or three on each island that control huge amounts of land.
In the film, the land the King family owns is on Kauai's South Shore, the sunniest part of the island. The North Shore is rocky and hilly while the south is lined with white sand beaches and towering palms. Despite what The Descendants may have you thinking, it's also well developed with a plethora of sprawling resorts to choose from, particularly in and around Poipu.
The King Family lives in the capital Honolulu and the majority of the 11-week shoot took place in and around the city on the island of Oahu, including the Gold Coast at the base of Diamond Head.
The King's neighborhood was shot on location in Nuuanu, just outside of downtown Honolulu. The area up in the hills is rainier. King's house is still lush and beautiful, but bits of glamour are lost in elements like his inviting pool that's covered in soggy brown leaves. Neighborhoods like the one depicted in The Descendants are where most people actually live - removed from the hotels and glossy avenues of downtown.
Payne is known for his keen sense of place in movies like Election (Omaha) and Sideways (Santa Barbara). His shots of Hawaii are as likely to be clouded in mist as they are in rays of light. The people that inhabit the land are equally normal-looking. As King puts it, the most powerful people in Hawaii look like bums and stuntmen.
Payne depicts a Hawaii that is struggling to come to terms with its past and dealing with its imperfect future - and he does so all while making slight nods to locations in and around Honolulu where President Obama grew up. In doing so, he makes the 50th state a microcosm for a larger, timelier, and more universal issue.
Author Kaui Hart Hemmings, who shares her alma mater of Punahou with Obama, is from a prominent family similar to her protagonist's, descended from both Hawaiian royalty and American missionaries. Though many have commented on the somewhat less-exotic sphere of everyday Hawaii, she rejects the label Hawaiian writer or the suggestion that her debut novel was meant to illustrate anything more than one man's psychological journey through crisis.
If people criticize my version of Hawaii, that's fine, she told The San Francisco Chronicle in November. Hawaii is so complex, there are so many points of view, and there are so many experiences to see and to find. I just did a little part in a little world and I'm hoping that it sticks.
She noted that her warts and all view of paradise may actually motivate more people to visit.
Critics have raved about the film's Eden meets suburbia aesthetic but what do other Hawaiians think about the film? Perhaps Mindy Pennybacker of Honolulu Weekly put it best:
For Hawaii's people, living in a place that's unrelentingly misrepresented in mainstream media as a perennially sunny, welcoming vacation paradise in which locals only get the supporting roles, this small, quiet film will feel profoundly different. In it, locals of all backgrounds will recognize ourselves, our families, our neighbors, the gritty stuff of our real lives. Not only that, it's the first popular film to see us through an insider's eyes.
We'll be talking about 'The Descendants' for a long time, Pennybacker added. And, whether we love it or not, what we're talking about will be ourselves.
The Descendants is up for five Academy Awards this Sunday including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Directing, Best Film Editing, and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role.