Indie Spirit Best Supporting Female Nominee: Shailene Woodley in ‘The Descendants’

Shailene Woodley as Alexandra King in The Descendants

This is a guest post from Martyna Przybysz.

It’s almost disappointing to hear people discuss Payne’s new film The Descendants and not have them mention the absolute raw talent that Shailene Woodley is until much later in the conversation, almost in an ‘Oh yeah, she was great too!’ kind of manner. Because to me, she pretty much steals the show.
When we first meet her character, Alexandra King, the daughter of Matt (Clooney) and Elizabeth King (recently injured in a tragic boating accident), it ain’t a pretty picture. Shipped away to a boarding school for her misbehavior, Alex seems to be enjoying herself a bit too much. “Dad? My fucking dad is here!” she shouts drunkenly to a friend, and then turns to Matt with an almost condescending “What’s up dad? What’s happening?” However intrigued we may be, we get off on the wrong foot with her, and – to the horror of her father who’s now convinced that “all women in his life want to destroy themselves” – she initially falls into a cliché of a rebellious teenage girl.
But one would think that after three seasons of being Amy on The Secret Life of The American Teenager, playing a troubled adolescent was not a new territory for Shailene. And this is where one couldn’t be more wrong. I caught a few snippets of the show on YouTube, and despite wooden ensemble acting, and the whole thing being rather cringe-worthy, Shailene definitely demonstrates some charisma and talent already.
The comparison between Amy and Alex, however, doesn’t extend beyond both characters being teenagers. Alexandra King is nothing like a silly teenage girl – she’s feisty, uncompromising, and wise beyond her years, a young woman. As the film progresses she slowly but surely transforms into her dad’s biggest ally.

Alexandra (Woodley) with her father, Matt (Clooney)

The father-daughter relationship in The Descendants is far from simple. When setting off to get Alex home, Matt compares a family to an archipelago – “all part of the same whole, but still separate, and alone, and always drifting slowly apart.” This couldn’t be more accurate. The morning after the alcohol incident at the boarding school, resentment and disregard towards Matt emanate through Alex’s body language. She blames him for always being busy with work, and not paying enough attention to her. Later in the day, that accusation begins to have different connotations. It is Alex who breaks the news about her mother’s affair to her dad. She’s angry and upset with both of her parents. But the fact that she sides with Matt in her uncompromising approach to her mum’s betrayal is the first sign of her becoming a moral compass for the entire situation.

In the film’s opening monologue Clooney’s character claims that “he’s ready to be a real father now.” Shortly after Alex’s return it becomes apparent that he’s not only in need of her help with his younger tomboyish daughter Scottie, but he could also use some moral support himself. After a rocky start, Matt, Alex, Scottie, and Alex’s friend Sid set off on a journey, both literally and metaphorically. They go to Kaua’i in search of Elizabeth’s lover.
In one of my favorite scenes, before their trip, Alex, Sid and Matt are in the car, just having looked for Brian Speer’s house. Sid – however his presence is meant to be keeping Alex ‘in check’  –  is being goofy and annoying, and Matt cannot take it anymore, but is too resigned to do anything about it. This is when Alex leans towards the front seat, and says “Don’t forget that I know where he lives” – that moment very subtly starts a new dynamic in their father-daughter relationship.
From the beginning Alex is supportive of Matt wanting to find the guy, and not suggestive of what he should do, but she jumps at the opportunity of going to another island, “getting out of town,” to look for him. It is during that trip that Alex’s role in the family begins to shape. Walking beside Clooney’s character, Woodley is his feisty and mouthy voice of reason – she voices all that Matt cannot or is afraid to say. And she does that effortlessly, in an ‘I don’t give a fuck’ manner.

And then, the peak moment of the film – the encounter with her mother’s lover  –  puts Alex in the spotlight. It is now clear how much of a strong, independent woman she’s become. She is the one who has the last word on whether they will confront the guy, and orders Matt to “not be a pussy.” He welcomes that advice, as well as he does the other times when she comes to his rescue, with a quiet relief. It isn’t until the last moment before the confrontation when Matt feels guilty about involving his underage daughter in the whole situation. But Alex is already two steps ahead of him. After all, she is the one “who sucked him in, the one who knew.”

Apart from trying to patch up a relationship with her dad, Alex has to look out for her younger sister, Scottie. It initially appears that she might not be setting the best example for her by teaching her swear words. But with her advice  –  however inappropriate it may be  –  Alex gets it right the first time. Like when she “advises” Scottie to keep away from a particular friend by saying that (the friend) “is a fucked-up hoe bag, and you need to stay away from her!” Vulgar? Maybe. But in Alex’s eyes it sends the message across, and puts Scottie in her place. And isn’t that what Matt needed when he sought Alex’s help with his younger daughter?
“Don’t spoil it for her” says Matt to Alex, when she’s pouring all of her accusations and blame out on Elizabeth. They now both need to protect Scottie, and Alex in an instant understands that she has to become more of a motherly figure. The only time that she allows herself to be really vulnerable is under the water, in the pool – releasing a silent cry at the news of her mother’s condition.

The final shape that Matt’s and Alex’s slowly maturing and re-developing bond takes is mostly visible towards the end of the film. During the goodbyes with Elizabeth, and then spreading her ashes in the Hawaiian waters, they come to a new level of understanding. They have now become equals, fully accepting of each other.

What intrigues me about Woodley’s character is her friendship with Sid. At the beginning of the film, Matt makes us aware of the fact that in her quest to self-destruction, Alex has a tendency to date older guys. And there comes Sid – a friend from school, slightly goofy, initially involved in the situation in order to ensure Alex stays “more civil.” He’s a nice addition to the ensemble, and brings much needed goofy-humor, but still, Alex whizzes through the entire situation solely on her two feet.
Apart from being a good looking long-legged siren, Alexandra King is a complex and multilayered character. She’s a feisty but intelligent and opinionated teenager, a self-assured and independent young woman, and last but not least – a compassionate and devoted adolescent daughter.
I have no clue how Shailene Woodley managed to stay in the shadows until now (because let’s face it, The Secret Life can hardly be counted), but it’s been said that she’d given “one of the toughest, smartest, most credible adolescent performances in recent memory” as Alexandra. Rawness and realness of her talent are visible throughout the film, and she definitely sets the bar high, both for herself, and other young actresses. If Alex King could say something to this, it would probably be ‘Fuck, yeah!’.

Martyna Przybysz is a Pole who resides in London, UK. She works in film production. This is her blog:

  • Yes, yes, YES!!! I’d never seen Shelaine Woodley in anything before this, but you’re absolutely correct in that she’s the moral compass of the film, and a wonderful, scene-stealing central character in her own right. She wouldn’t have had a chance against ‘The Help’s Octavia Spencer, but it would have been nice to see her nominated for an Academy Award for her excellent performance.