Hawaii is more than just a paradise island, as we learn in this gripping drama from director Alexander Payne. Clooney stars as a lawyer, distanced from his wife and family due to work and the trials of middle age. When his wife suffers a head injury from a boating accident and ends up in a coma, Matt King (Clooney) finds himself no longer the ‘back up parent’, but the only hope for his two daughters.
In Payne’s film, Hawaii becomes a backdrop for the everyday struggles of a normal family. Gritty reality is conveyed without the usual backdrop of a concrete jungle. Rebellious teenager, problem pre-teen and workaholic father all sounds like common fictional stereotypes, but the King family here are a completely sincere and lovable family.
What begins as a family tragedy turns into a tale of adultery and investigation as King seeks out his wife’s lover, played by a much grown up Matthew Lillard. King’s daughters Scottie and Alex are superb in their roles, taking on these very adult themes with maturity and innocence at once. Shailene Woodley as the seventeen year old Alex is particularly riveting, especially during the scene in which Clooney explains to her that her mother’s life support is to be switched off. Diving underwater to avoid the reality of the situation, the camera follows her, capturing her tragic, silent screams. Later in the film, this scene is mirrored by another brilliantly filmed shot, in which the camera films the family’s floral leis floating on the water as they scatter their mother’s ashes.
The film’s other central story line is a highly controversial matter, involving the proposed sale of acres of virgin Hawaiian land to commercial developers. King’s worry over the sale alongside dealing with the grief of his wife’s death and the newly discovered knowledge of her affair are conveyed by Clooney with the utmost subtlety, and his chemistry with his daughters on screen is touching, especially in the closing sequence, a simple wide angle shot of the family sitting under a blanket, eating ice cream, whilst watching March of the Penguins. As an audience we fell for King, whose situation is emotionally confusing, and the scene in which he says goodbye to his wife, is beautiful: an Oscar-worthy performance.
The supporting cast are excellent, including Judy Greer as Brian’s wife, and Amara Miller as Scottie. Scottie is a little girl desperate to grow up like her sister, and comes out with some great lines which she is abruptly punished for, my favourite being: “we all know you got pubes over summer” (this, coming from a ten year old). Comic relief is provided in the form of Alex’s friend Sid, who is a true surfer ‘dude’. His laid back and often misguided approach to the sensitivity of the situation is amusing, and provides King with a mirror through which to see his daughters’ future (Sid also recently lost his father).
In addition to coma, adultery and capitalism, Payne’s film also touches upon other sensitive issues such as dementia, through the character of Tutu, the dying Elizabeth’s mother. Although her character is not developed further, the realisation (through Sid’s indelicate laughter) is apparent, and adds another level to the very real problems faced by this family.
The problems faced by the Kings are examples of the lives of everyday Americans, as Clooney narrates that Hawaiians’ cancer is no less deadly, their families no less torn apart. The beautiful paradise island is not always sunny in the film, reflecting the reality that for the people who live there, Hawaii is more than just a holiday destination.