Matt King (Clooney), a Hawaiian land baron and father of two, finds himself at a life-altering crossroad. A workaholic assigned the task of deciding whether to sell his family’s historic land and help his extended family’s declining finances, his life is suddenly put on hold when his wife Elizabeth (Patti Hastie) finds herself on life support after a boating accident. For the first time Matt must take care of his daughters: rebellious ten year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and troubled teen Alex (Shailene Woodley). The doctor tells Matt the bad news. His wife’s condition is irreversible and according to her will, she must be taken off life support. As he tells Alex the news, she spills a secret of her own. She had caught her mother with another man just before leaving for school. Matt runs to some friends’ house to get confirmation, which he does along with a name, Brian Speer.
Matt, his daughters and Alex’s inappropriately outspoken friend Sid (Nick Krause), soon find themselves on a trip to find Brian Speer (Mathew Lillard), a local real estate agent with suspicious ties to the family land deal. While all of Hawaii awaits Matt’s decision, he find himself on a journey that leads to questions of heritage and human relationships, all while struggling to do right by his family above all else.
Matt King is a certain career achievement for Clooney, who is famous for being quite the womanizing opposite to Matt’s devoted father persona. Matt allows himself to grown gracefully. Wrinkles, casual dress and an average-looking mixed Hawaiian family. The performance stands-out mostly in his ability to keep under restraint. Matt is under great pain. He is angry and heartbroken and under a great amount of pressure but he never lets it show. He does what is morally right and respects his wife’s decisions as much as they pain him. Clooney’s emotional range plays out beautifully in this role and it is a sure bet he’ll be around come Oscar time.
One of the film’s charms lies in its casting. Familiar faces are kept in smaller roles and fresh new faces take over as Clooney’s companions. Shailene Woodley, best known to audiences as Amy in the teen TV drama The Secret Life of the American Teenager, surprises with a solid performance that manages to keep up with Clooney as his faithful companion. She is the film’s secondary adult presence. A teen yet able to drive her father to his goals, take care of her sister and maturely accept if not handle her mother’s situation. While the cast rounds out with performances from Beau Bridges as Cousin Hugh among others, it is Robert Forster and Judy Greer who make the most out of their supporting roles as Elizabeth’s distraught father Scott and Brian’s clueless wife, respectively.
There is certainly a lot to love and learn from this film. Alexander Payne’s greatest gift of characterization and seamless storytelling is at its best here. While the argument between the superiority of Sideways over this film will be inevitable, they are at the very least compatibly masterful. The Descendants will be released in theaters on November 16th. If there is just one film that can’t be missed for the holidays, this is the one.