out of Five
Running time: 117
Emotionally engaging and frequently funny, this is a satisfying drama with a sharply written script, likeable characters and a terrific performance from George Clooney that's certain to garner some attention come Oscar time.
What's it all about?
Directed by Alexander Payne (Election), The Descendants is based on the best-selling novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings and stars George Clooney as Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer who's the sole trustee of a huge parcel of inherited virgin land, which his numerous cousins are hoping he will sell to land developers and make them all rich. However, Matt's long work hours have meant that he has neglected his two daughters – 17 year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) - and when his wife winds up in a coma after a boating accident, Matt is forced to become the primary parent, despite barely knowing how to talk to them.
Clooney is terrific as a man forced to re-examine his priorities and relationships and he generates engaging, awkward chemistry with both Woodley and Miller, both of whom are excellent. There's also strong support from Robert Forster as Matt's grouchy father-in-law and from Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer as a married couple who have a connection to Matt's wife, while Beau Bridges contributes a colourful turn as the ringleader of the cousins.
The script is excellent, cleverly avoiding the usual clichés associated with this kind of drama; consequently, you don't get the big emotional scenes you expect and the equivalent sequences are beautifully handled, for example, a moment where Scottie is told about her mother's condition plays out without dialogue with the camera close on her face. Similarly, the dialogue is extremely well written and there are several laugh-out-loud moments along with delightful little character details, such as Matt's clumpy running style.
Unsurprisingly, given the source material, the predominant feeling you get from watching The Descendants is the same that you get from finishing a really satisfying novel. As a result, it's moving, thought-provoking and heartwarming, while making some sharply observed comments about both grief and family/community responsibility, without ever resorting to sugary sentimentality or moralising.
Frankly, if Clooney doesn't receive a Best Actor Oscar nomination, there is officially no justice, while The Descendants also has an excellent shot at Best Picture and Best Director nominations. Highly recommended.