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‘The Descendants’ shows the true Hawaii

One of the most poignant scenes in Alexander Payne’s terrific new film The Descendantstakes place on the southeast coast of Kauai, where wealthy landowner Matt King (played by George Clooney) and his two daughters gaze over an idyllic – and empty, for now – oceanfront valley.

Descendant of a Hawaiian princess and a haole (white) banker, King heads a trust that will determine the fate of that pristine beach and 25,000 acres of surrounding land. Will King’s family enable its preservation, or sell it off for condos and hotels?

Though Hawaii has been the setting for countless movies and TV shows, it’s often as a caricature or as a stand-in for someplace else, from Bali Ha’i (Vanuatu) in South Pacific to Vietnam in Tropic Thunder.

But The Descendants, adapted closely from the novel by Hawaii author Kaui Hart Hemmings, portrays the Aloha State in an equally gorgeous but far more realistic and nuanced light – from angst over land development to Honolulu traffic jams and leaf-filled swimming pools.

“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,” writes Honolulu Weekly. “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.”

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Among the film’s locations on Kauai, where Roberts’ Kauai Movie Tours has already added The Descendants to their line-up:

— Owned by the missionary-descended Rice family, Kipu Kai is the setting for the King trust’s land holdings. A three-hour, $125 ATV tour by Kipu Ranch Adventures includes a stop at the beach (which is accessible only by boat) and valley overlook.

–Like Clooney’s character King, The Descendants’ author spent childhood vacations at Kauiokelani, an ancestral estate on Hanalei Bay. The estate’s six-bedroom main house is now a $15,000 a week vacation rental; the nearby three-bedroom, beachfront Nalu Beach Cottage ($5,000 a week) is where King confronts a vacationing real estate agent who’d been having an affair with his wife.

— Part-time Kauai resident Beau Bridges plays King’s cousin, and is a real-life patron at Tahiti Nui, a rakish Hanalei bar that serves as a key backdrop in the film. “All the guys you see in the scene in the background are just local folks who were hanging at the bar,” Bridges tells BlogTalkRadio.”The Hawaiian band in the scene play there every Thursday night. Tahiti Nui is a legendary hang.”

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