Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings's novel, The Descendants is acclaimed director Alexander Payne's (Sideways) gentle, welcomed take of a family in a moment of grief and confusion as well as a teenager's passage of growth.
Matt King (George Clooney) seems to have a life everyone would envy: rich as a direct descendant of a wealthy Hawaiian family and smart as a working lawyer. But life is not a bed of roses as all movies go all out to prove. His oft-neglected wife meets with an accident and he is suddenly in charge of a rebellious teenage daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) as well as Scottie (Amara Miller). In the midst of an important deal that would make his family richer than before, he is also a stressed-out lawyer in charge of his family's wealth as descendants of royalty and lucky owners of prime land in Hawaii for generations. And that's not all. To add insult to injury, King discovers his wife's illicit affair with Brian (Matthew Lillard) and struggles to face it by hunting the lover down.
Clooney's acting skills are given perfect chance to shine and he does it brilliantly. As King, he has to demonstrate an array of emotions all at once: grief as husband to a dying wife; confused as a sudden single parent; stress as an overworked lawyer; and hurt as the bombshell of an affair befalls him.
But the stage does not belong to him alone. Woodley (The Secret Life of an American Teenager) is convincing as an elder sibling frustrated at having to grow up quickly to fill the shoes of her soon-to-be late mother while managing her dad's anger at her cheating mom as well as his stalker instincts thereafter.
There is also an on slew of interesting characters including Brian's hysterical wife played by Judy Greer; Nick Krause as Alexander's goofy, low-EQ buddy; Robert Forster as Matt's grumpy, gruff father-in-law; and Beau Bridges as the relative who has an eye on the family's fortune.
Despite the seriousness and sadness of the entire situation for King, director Alexander Payne somehow manages to lighten the mood, putting on screen a digestible yet genuine take of the possible scenario – resulting in a wistful, thought-provoking film.