The Double Feature: The Descendants and The Namesake
The Godfather, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Hannah and Her Sisters— what do these three disparate classic films all have in common? A focus on family.
Filmmakers have been mining the theme of family with mesmerizing results for as long as the art of filmmaking has existed. It makes sense. We all have families of one kind or another, and we have all struggled with the ways in which our families define us, both the current members and our ancestors. The long lineage that stretches behind each of us, forming our cultural identity along the way, provides the films in this month’s Double Feature with their souls. The theme is most prominent in 2006’s The Namesake, a film that tracks a young Indian man’s path to self-discovery as he reconciles his Indian heritage and familial duties with his American upbringing, but it’s in 2011’s The Descendents too, humming just beneath the surface of the family crisis that sends George Clooney’s Matt on a mission to reconnect with his present and his past.
The Descendants was a critical hit in 2011, topping many of the year-end lists and walking away with the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. It’s not a showy film, and despite its subject matter it never wallows in grief. Just the opposite in fact, it finds humor in a situation that would, under normal circumstances, be utterly humorless. It tells the story of a man named Matt King (Clooney), whose wife is left comatose after a boating accident. In the beginning, Matt is an island, adrift from his wife, his daughters, and even himself as he wrestles with a decision to sell off the last of the Hawaiian land that makes up his family’s inheritance. Then his eldest daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), informs him that his wife was having an affair.
What follows is Matt’s sometimes funny, sometimes tragic journey toward becoming the man he wanted to be all along. Clooney gives an understated, pitch perfect performance as Matt. Whether he’s having a one-sided fight with his comatose wife or bonding with his daughter’s strangely wise stoner boyfriend (Nick Krause), Clooney provides a deeply human center for the character’s existential angst to hang on. However, as good as Clooney is, Woodley nearly walks away with the film. Woodley’s Alex begins the film as a standard prickly teenager, but the minute she submerges herself in her family’s dirty pool after her father breaks the news that her mother will not be waking up she becomes so much more. From that moment on she is the rock that holds her family together, sliding into the gaping hole her mother will leave behind.
Filmed in Hawaii, The Descendants immerses us in a beautiful locale to tell us a difficult story about death, the importance of personal history and the resiliency of family. None of those topics are anything new, but they take on a near mythic weight thanks to Alexander Payne’s careful direction and the film’s deep bench of talented actors (not to mention that Academy Award winning screenplay).
The Namesake garnered a bit of critical attention when it was released, but for the most part it remains little seen. It was adapted from a novel by the brilliant Jhumpa Lahiri, and like most adaptations it suffers a bit when compared to the novel it was based on. Taken on its own though, The Namesake is a beautiful film that gracefully tracks a young man’s quest to reconcile his cultural identity with his personal one.
Kal Penn stars as Gogol, the film’s central character, and if you’re only familiar with Penn’s comedic work, you are in for something special. He gets to play several stages of Gogol’s life taking us from Gogol’s petulant teen years to his college years and beyond, and at each stage we get to see Gogol struggle to understand his parents, and the country they left behind, as well as himself. At every stage Penn is a delight to watch, even when Gogol is at his most unbearable. In fact, the film’s greatest strength is the way it makes us care for Gogol even when he is being selfish. We may not always like him, but his struggles always ring true.
As much as The Namesake is about Gogol, it’s also about his parents and their love story. Mira Nair’s lush directing style is well suited to conveying the complex relationship between Gogol and his parents, particularly between Gogol and his father (Irrfan Khan). The film lacks the humor that tempers the pain in The Descendants, but between the romanticism of Gogol’s parents’ relationship, the breathtaking scenery and the superb character work, you’ll hardly miss it.
These two films aren’t just stories about families. They are stories about heritage. Gogol has to find a way to embrace his Indianness because to deny it is to deny his mother, his father and ultimately himself. Likewise, it’s no coincidence that Matt is facing the loss of his wife at the same moment that he is being forced to decide what to do with his family’s land. To give it up is to choose to stay an island, to choose to believe that he is not part of something much deeper and more significant than his singular self. That land isn’t just his, it belonged to the ancestors who came before him and it will belong to the family members who will come after him and he has a duty to preserve that connection.
The Namesake and The Descendants are all about roots, and the frustrating, wonderful ways in which those roots tie families together. It is their deft focus on the inescapable nature of family that gives these small films so much power.
A word of warning in case you decide to take on this month’s Double Feature, this pairing is a four hankie event, so be sure to have a box of tissues at the ready. Tears aside, I think you’ll find they’re both films worthy of your time. If you check them out, be sure to come back and let me know what you think in the comments!
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