Director and writer Alexander Payne is one of those excellent filmmakers who does not make near enough movies. ELECTION and SIDEWAYS are both brilliant and ABOUT SCHMIDT is still better than most others. So it with a huge breath of fresh air that after seven years we finally get to see his next great project in THE DESCENDANTS.
George Clooney plays Matt King a wealthy descendant of landowners in Hawaii. Soon he and his cousins, who are all part owners, must make an important decision about selling the land that will inevitably affect the entire island. Matt has two daughters, older teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and younger innocent Scottie (Amara Miller) that he seems to have trouble raising. His wife recently went into an unrecoverable coma after a boating accident. Unfortunately, after that unbearable information, Matt finds out from Alex that his wife has been cheating on him. Now with the help of his two daughters and Alex’s obnoxiously laid back friend Sid (terrifically played by Nick Krause), they must inform the rest of their friends and family about their wife and mother’s soon to be death and set off to find the man she was sleeping with.
Perfectly cast, all the characters are rich with personality and emotion. Payne always writes great characters but sometimes the supporting roles are a bit cartoony. Not here though, every supporting character is authentic and real. With the help of some very inspired casting, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer all have small but pivotal parts that they knock out of the park.
The standout performances come from our core family with a fascinating range of emotion that must be conveyed subtly. Their hurt and anger is understandable but when the main culprit and villain is also someone they love most in the world and is stuck in a coma the entire picture, their hate is conflicted with sadness and love with nowhere to project. Young newcomer, Shailene Woodley is amazing as the profanity spewing older daughter Alex. She is in nearly every scene going toe to toe with Clooney and more than holding her own. As the one who originally caught her mom in the adultery act, she has an anger and venom that is sweetly in support of her father yet against his cluelessness. While we never see Matt before his wife’s accident where he was apparently distant from his family and the bad father type of not being around enough, the hurt, broken man Clooney portrays is a sympathetic guy we can all get behind. He has no idea how to deal with his kids but always is wanting to do the right thing and through his pain, he puts their pain as his priority.
I foresee several nominations come award season with perhaps several wins for the screenplay. This is a wonderful story that pinpoints wickedly subtle and not so subtle humor while connecting some very interesting and dramatic situations. THE DESCENDANTS will make you feel several emotions in different ways than usual and I hope everyone makes a point to see it.