- Running time:
- 115 minutes
- George Clooney -
- Matt King
- Shailene Woodley -
- Alexandra King
- Amara Miller -
- Scottie King
- Nick Krause -
- Patricia Hastie -
- Elizabeth King
Native Hawaiian Matt King (George Clooney) could have all the time and money he wants by selling his family’s land to developers, but instead chooses the demanding life of a successful professional—he works so much he’s barely noticed his daughters, 17 year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10 year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), grow up. When a boating accident leaves Matt’s wife in a coma, he realizes how unprepared he is to face the responsibilities of fatherhood alone.
The buzz: Director Alexander Payne’s first film since 2004’s “Sideways” is based on a novel by Hawaiian native Kaui Hart Hemmings, initially adapted by writers/actors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash before Payne came on board to make it his own. Filmed on location in Hawaii, “The Descendants” had been stirring awards chatter even before its formal launch at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals established it as a sure bet for Oscar nominations.
The verdict: One of the year’s very best films, “The Descendants” effortlessly blends moments of broad comedy with moments of heart wrenching anguish, often in the very same scene. It’s a tricky high-wire act that succeeds in capturing how joy and pain, anger and sadness aren’t always mutually exclusive feelings. And it’s all accomplished through exemplary work from everyone involved. Like Payne’s previous films, “Descendants” is expertly cast from top to bottom. Clooney dials down the movie star charm to play up his strengths as a performer, and delivers his most emotionally vulnerable—and, not coincidentally, most affecting—work to date. Matt’s tentative but well-intentioned approach to his roles as a father, husband and man are the window into this world. The movie only works if we connect to this character, and Clooney makes it a breeze. But he doesn’t do it alone.
This is a film full of vivid personalities bouncing off each other in unexpected ways, their interactions deservedly take precedence over the plot (basically a series of humanely considered moral dilemmas and challenges). Woodley is the standout as wild child Alexandra, who is more of a woman than her father may be ready to realize or admit. Every actor in the eclectic supporting feels like a revelation—from natural newcomer Nick Krause as Alexandra’s surfer-stoner buddy Sid, to veteran Robert Forster as Matt’s cantankerous father-in-law, to underappreciated character actress Judy Greer as a woman unexpectedly tied to Matt and his wife. Payne has a knack for making every character feels like a specific, complicated individual. That’s a seemingly simple but frustratingly rare pleasure in movies these days, and it’s absolutely vital to the film’s exploration of universal themes of family ties. There are flashier directors working today, but Payne’s position at the forefront of contemporary filmmaking comes from telling richly human stories filled with wit, insight and unique charm. He’s building quite a legacy.
Did you know? In addition to her success as an author, Hemmings has Hawaii celebrity status as the adopted daughter of surf legend and state senator Fred Hemmings.
Follow Metromix's Geoff Berkshire on Twitter: @geoffberkshire
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