By MARK TURNER
There are movies that are released and then discussed later when Oscar time rolls around as being the next best thing since sliced bread. The actors and directors are talked about and make the talk show route. Almost always these incidents are nothing more than hype, trying to drum up interest in a film that is nominated but nowhere near as good as they claim. Then there are the rare times when it all clicks and turns out to be true as with THE DESCENDANTS.
George Clooney stars as Matt King, a hard-working property lawyer who's made his mark while living in Hawaii. As the film opens Matt has had a major setback arrive in a speed boating accident involving his wife Elizabeth. As she lays in a coma while the doctors wait to see how she responds to treatment, Matt is faced with day-to-day life at home involving his youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller).
This is not Matt's area of expertise. It soon becomes apparent that home life has little to do with Matt of late and that he has no idea how to be involved in his child's life. Scottie has been acting up at school, presumably dealing with the life-threatening situation her mother is in. With no idea how to cope with Scottie, Matt flies the two of them to another island where his older daughter Alexandra (Shallene Woodley) is enrolled in boarding school with the hopes she will help him.
But Alexandra doesn't offer all the help Matt needs. Following in her rambunctious mother's footsteps, Alexandra has shown a drug problem in the past and when Matt arrives he finds her drunk. Flying home the next day they talk about what is going on and why she fought with her mother the last time the two spoke. It is then that Alexandra drops the bomb in Matt's lap that spurs on the rest of the film. She lets him know that her mother was having an affair and that she had planned to divorce Matt.
This scene displays the acting ability of Clooney perhaps more than any other in his career as he displays shock, outrage, pain and disbelief within a matter of seconds. In addition Matt is told there is nothing more to be done and that due to her living will his wife is soon to be taken off life support.
So begins Matt's quest, aided by his daughters and Alexandra's friend Sid (Nick Krause) to find the man his wife was involved with. It turns out the man is a realtor and in witnessing one of his signs in a yard, Matt and Alexandra are able to find him on another island. Soon the four are flying once more to find this man.
With little solid clues they trace him to a hotel only to find he's not there. It is by chance that Matt passes him on the beach one morning while jogging and follows him home to a cottage where he sees him with a wife and two children. Having told himself over and over again that he wants to offer this man the chance to say goodbye to Elizabeth, reality isn't quite what he expected. What does he do now?
While all of this is going on a side story has Matt trying to decide what to do with a huge acreage of land that his family owns. As trustee for the land, it is up to Matt what they finally do. One group of cousins wants to sell to a high finance man from Chicago who intends to develop the land with hotels and golf courses. The other is a local man who wants to do the same but continue to involve local people. And then there is the minority who feel that the land should remain as it is in pristine condition. In seven years the trust falls apart. If they sell now each cousin and Matt have the chance at making millions.
At the heart of the film are two quests involving Matt. One involves his discovering the family that he left behind for the office, getting back in touch with his children and rediscovering who they really are as well as who he is. The second is relating to the land he was put in care of, a land and history that goes well beyond years and property rights and involved a tradition and sense of community. Where Matt will go with either quest isn't seen until the final reel.
Clooney is amazing here. Rather than go for an over-the-top performance he displays so many subtle signs of emotion that you can feel each and every thing that goes through the character's mind as the story unfolds. His frustration, his rage, his sadness are all on display through the performance Clooney offers and it stands out as one of his best. Equally amazing is his supporting cast, most notably Woodley and Miller who show a large emotional depth for their young years.
This film isn't a feel good movie but at the same time it isn't a downer either. It offers true moment of humor as well as drama and tells a story that involves you from beginning to end. As I watched I wondered if this was a movie I would watch again or just place on the shelf. In the end I decided it has to be seen more than once with time spent between viewings the better to appreciate what is seen on screen. This is one movie you don't want to miss.
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