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Island heartbreaker

Clooney is Oscar-worthy in The Descendants

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I know, I know, The Descendants hardly qualifies as a new film, but let me explain myself. Even though it opened wide in December, the movie didn't make it to Missoula until just a few weeks ago, making it relatively new for Missoulians. Secondly, it's Oscar season, and given the choice between seeing one of the best-picture nominees over one of the rejects that studios like to drop on unsuspecting audiences every January (see The Vow), I'm going with George Clooney in Hawaii.

A good choice it was. In a crowded field of nine nominees, I'm not sure if The Descendants will manage to nab the Best Picture trophy, but along with Hugo and Moneyball, it's in the top tier. If we're talking about shiny gold statues, let's just go ahead and let Mr. Clooney start his acceptance speech for best actor. He is charming and vulnerable here, aided by a phenomenal supporting cast, a moving story and a setting that will give audiences an unexpected and rarely seen side of the 50th state.

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Clooney is Matt King, a Honolulu real estate lawyer who happens to be the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of pristine Hawaiian land that's been in the family for more than 150 years. The family, including dozens of King's cousins, is getting ready to sell that land to the highest bidder, a move that promises to make them all members of the one percent as the untouched beach-front property is turned into a five-star golf resort.

That decision looms large—with pressure from around the state not to sell—but it has been de-prioritized by a family crisis. King's wife Elizabeth is in a coma, the result of a boating accident. The outlook is not good. And their seventeen-year-old daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) has just coldly informed Dad that Mom had been cheating on him before her accident. So yes, things are stressful in the King household, which also includes 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller).

There are moments in The Descendants—many of them, actually—where you brace for a plunge into Lifetime Channel territory. The checklist is all there: somber plot, dying mom, rebellious daughter, a father who describes himself as the "back-up parent." But that moment never arrives.

Instead, director Alexander Payne steers the film to unexpected places, keeping things wonderfully off-balance as King and his daughters cope with a dying wife and mother while simultaneously searching for the man she was sleeping with. How the film deals with such diametrically opposed emotions is brilliant in its restraint. The feelings of loss and anger and love and revenge are all real. The melodrama is absent.

Payne appears to gravitate toward films about outcasts and infidelities. His last two big projects—Sideways and About Schmidt—focused heavily on both, to the point where the films became uncomfortable to watch at times. Here, Matt King isn't an outcast in the traditional sense, but his practical nature and introverted tendencies make him something of an anomaly among his friends and family. The infidelity angle is so different here in that only one person can do the talking. The scene in which Matt confronts his comatose wife about her affair—waiting for a response he knows will never come—is devastating.

Clooney's stellar performance is enhanced by the actors around him, particularly Woodley, who grows on screen from a spoiled brat to become her father's confidante. The shift doesn't feel forced, but rather like the result of a young woman forced to grow up in a hurry. For much-needed moments of comic relief, we can thank Sid (Nick Krause), a friend of Alex's who always seems to be along for the ride. He is also multi-layered, much to the film's benefit.

The Descendants is filmed through the lens of Hawaii's permanent residents, which makes it a rarity in the cinematic history of the island state. The dichotomy of a family crisis unfolding in the land of vacationers and surfers and luaus makes for an uneasy but evocative island vibe. Everything about it feels original. The Descendants never stops reminding you that even in paradise, life can be unfair and unforgiving.

The Descendants continues at the Carmike 12.

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