Direction: Alexander Payne
Actors: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley
The fifth feature by Alexander Payne (whose earlier films Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt and Sideways were never released here), The Descendants is an indelible portrait of loss and self-discovery. Based on the acclaimed debut novel by the Hawaiian author Kaui Hart Hemmings, the serio-comic family drama focuses on a prosperous middle-aged lawyer (Clooney).
The sole trustee of a vast plot of land inherited from his descendants, the attorney is thrust into unfamiliar terrain when his wife falls into an irreversible coma after a boating accident. A self-confessed "back-up parent, an understudy", the absentee dad must now not only take care of his two young daughters (Woodley-Amara Miller, both sufficiently sassy) but also cope with the discovery that his wife was cheating on him.
More character-than-plot driven, the script dexterously blends humour with heartache as the lawyer sets out to track down his wife's lover. Among the horde of flawed and funny subsidiary characters, there's the elder sibling's doofus boyfriend (Nick Krause), an avaricious cousin (Beau Bridges) intent on selling the ancestral property and a doddering father-in-law (old-timer Robert Forster, superb) who barely comprehends the domestic crisis.
Several aspects of the film enthrall the heart and the mind. Consider the much-anticipated confrontation scene which culminates with the cuckolded husband kissing the adulterer's spouse (Judy Greer) gently on her lips. The beauty of the Hawaiian setting is captured (courtesy Phedon Papamichael) without the usual touristy trappings. As good as the writing and direction are, it's Clooney's persuasively subtle characterisation which dominates the show. Oscar ahoy? Intelligent, assured and affecting, The Descendants is a must-experience.