The Descendants

It seems hard to believe that it's been seven years since Alexander Payne's "Sideways" became the critical darling of 2004. Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and winning Payne an Adapted Screenplay Oscar--that picture (along with Election and About Schmidt) signaled a talented filmmaker with an unorthodox worldview. Blending elements of comedy and drama, Payne has crafted complex characters simultaneously frustrating and sympathetic--but altogether real. In adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings' intimate novel "The Descendants" to the big screen, Payne demonstrates (once again) a deft balance of emotions to create a picture both funny and heartbreaking. I so admired how Payne made vineyards and fine wines a major component, an extra character really, in the sublime "Sideways." In much the same way, Hawaii is a principle character (and I would contend one of the most pivotal) to "The Descendents." It would be easy to imagine someone jettisoning much of this rich texture, but Payne has crafted a loving tribute to the state's heritage in addition to one of the year's most surprising family dramas.

 George Clooney plays one of the titular descendants, someone whose family has great historical significance to the Hawaiian Islands. In fact, he and his many cousins own a great tract of undeveloped land that plays a major role in the film's fascinating side story. Front and center, however, is a more personal tale of family dysfunction and pulling together in crisis. When Clooney's somewhat estranged wife is incapacitated in an accident, Clooney must take charge of his troublesome teenage daughter (an astute Shailene Woodley) and his rebellious younger girl (an appealingly unexpected Amara Miller). With mom in a coma, Clooney is left to do his best to reconnect with the girls that he hasn't made enough time for. While this seems to be leading to some routine comic hijinks, the film takes a decidedly more serious turn as Clooney learns about his wife's true feelings. The rest of the movie walks the tightrope about how he and his daughters can channel these revelations and emerge stronger for it. And the film runs the gamut of emotions with anger, betrayal, love, and regret sharing equal time as the family embarks on a tumultuous journey together.

While I know this makes the film sound like a bit of a downer, there is much humor to be enjoyed as well. While I'm confident that many will reveal far more about the plot than I am willing to, I think that it is best to let the story unravel without expectation. This is very much an in-depth character study. As such, Clooney has one of his most rewarding roles. He goes through a lot, but he maintains a subtlety that always keeps the picture grounded (even in its more extreme elements). Woodley is a revelation and this is as far a departure from TV's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" as she's likely to experience. I'm confident we'll be seeing more of her. Miller has a real ease and provides many well placed laughs and a few tears as well. Perhaps the film's biggest secret weapon is Nick Krause playing Woodley's friend. As a laconic and laid back surfer dude, Krause's scenes with Clooney have real impact. As an odd source of wisdom and support, he is a unique character in this piece.

"The Descendants," at the end of the day, is a quiet and thoughtful film. The film never plays up the huge emotional moments or strains for melodrama. It simply lets the characters exist as complex creations, with all their foibles and flaws in evidence. Its understated power, therefore, is all the more successful as it feels patently real. A treat for adult movie goers, 4 1/2 stars. KGHarris, 12/11.

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