I’m a big fan of The Descendants, the Alexander Payne, Hawaii-based movie with George Clooney in the pivotal role. While The Descendants received reasonable critical acclaim and won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, I still feel the movie is a bit under-rated. Even at the time, you didn’t hear much buzz about it. Maybe that’s because the film is more heartfelt than whiz-bang. Clooney plays Matt King, an affluent Hawaiian from a pioneer family who is suddenly faced with a domestic crisis that forces him to try and re-connect with two good-hearted but troubled daughters.
Beyond the affecting characters and storyline, I also admired the fact that Hawaii, rather than serving as merely a scenic backdrop (hello there, Elvis), was itself a major player. The movie gave me a sense of what it’s like living in a seeming paradise, while still having to deal with the travails of life. Who can forget the scene when Matt frantically runs down the road in his flip-flops?
I was also captivated by the traditional Hawaiian music featured in The Descendants. None of that Don Ho “Tiny Bubbles” dreck. This was the real deal, full of lovely, haunting melodies, sung mostly in Hawaiian and featuring the slack key guitar that defines music authenticity on the Islands. After months of searching, I managed to find the soundtrack CD in a downtown Toronto record store, and have yet to tire of it.
So, on a recent, first-time visit to the enchanting island of Kauai, where a good chunk of The Descendants takes place, instead of surfing, snorkeling and sunbathing, I searched out key locations from the movie. (I must do the same for Blowup one of these days. Where was that ghostly, lusciously-green park, anyway?)
The best was having a happy hour pint at the legendary Tahiti Nui pub, the intimate local establishment in Hanalei, where George Clooney and Beau Bridges chat away, sitting on a couple of the dozen or so vinyl-covered, old rickety bar stools.
The bar remains pretty much untouched by any fame from the movie, with only a small picture of George and Beau on the wall, amid many others from the bar’s 50-year history and its long-ago founder, “Auntie” Louise Marston. There was a slack key guitar guy on the bandstand and Julia Whitford, who’s in the movie, was trying out a new mai tai. “I’m bored,” she explained, “and you gotta keep trying new stuff to keep the customers coming back.”
Earlier, we had walked along majestic Hanalei Beach, looking for the vacation cottage that housed the family of the faithless Brian Speers, with whom Matt King’s wife was having an affair. There’s a funny scene involving George of the Jungle spying on the scoundrel by peeking over a hedge. We soon found the infamous abode, now peppered with signs reminding people like me that it was on private property.
Location groupie-ism, however, has its limits. We didn’t bother checking out the pricey St. Regis Princeville Resort, where Matt King registers with his kids and asks the desk clerk if Brian Speers is staying there. Nor did we pay the bucks for a tour of the beautiful, privately-owned ranch that stands in for the vast acreage owned by the King family, most of whom want to develop into resorts and shopping centres.
We watched the movie one more time before heading out on our location quest, and it was all good fun. Most locals have stories about the movie shoot. “My mother had lunch with George Clooney,” says the guy showing us around the old Hanalei mission house. (You wanna get away from the tourists? Tour the mission house. P.S. It’s great.)
The whole island, of course, is terrific, with a lot of history still standing, apart from the stunning scenery and lustrous beaches. At the lookout by the Kilauea Point lighthouse , we saw a humpback whale rise out of the ocean and splash down six times, while frigate birds, albatrosses, tropicbirds and, yes, red-footed boobies soared above the surrounding cliffs on one unforgettable morning.
So far, huge waves of tourism have given Kauai a pass. It retains a laid-back character, particularly in the small towns along the shores which have resisted development. And we never had a bad meal. As an added bonus, you can drop in at the most western independent bookstore in the US of A. It has a wonderful selection of book (always helpful for a bookstore…hehe). Business, the owner says, is good, and we were able to buy even more Hawaiian music, there.
The Descendants, the movie’s marvellous soundtrack, and Kauai, itself – all highly recommended. Mahalo.