The Descendants (2011)
A great insight into local Hawaiian culture, history and geography backdrops this probing examination of how a father (George Clooney) and his two estranged daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) deal with the fact that his wife and their mother has gone into a permanent coma after a boating accident. The woman has left several loose ends, which the Clooney character will have to tidy up while at the same time trying to rebond with his daughters, make arrangements concerning his wife's family, deciding on whether to sanction the sale of a sizeable portion of family-owned pristine Hawaiian land, and − last but not least − try to track down one mysterious Brian Speer.
The Descendants is a movie about ordinary people in special but far from unthinkable situations. It's not the single actions these people do which are interesting, but the situations they find themselves in before, while and after doing them. As such, the film is highly reminiscent of and has many of the same qualities as Alexander Payne's previous film, Sideways, which was released to aptly rave reviews some seven years ago. And as with Sideways, Payne yet again demonstrates that his biggest talent as a filmmaker is to portray what goes on inside the heads of his protagonists. He respects them and lets them develop on their own, but not without making them look exactly as goofy as they are when they embarrass themselves. Combine this with Payne's ability to assume many different points of view, and take his characters' entire emotional spectrum into consideration, and you have a great basis for an unassuming and perceptive comedy-drama.
In the lead, George Clooney gives a steadfast performance of a naturally strong man who is given the emotional test of his life. Clooney is sympathetic in almost every way without ever threatening to come off as too saintly, and he is able to convey an array of emotions without ever going over the top. The other performers are an effective combination of established and new Hollywood character actors on the one side, and local unprofessionals on the other. This gives the film a suitable regional feel with a strong local connection - which seems to be another of Alexander Payne's strengths. He's interested in country and people, and he wants to portray both in a good light, without ever glorifying them. The Descendants is a truly deep movie − and I don't mean in the emo, show-offish, overly philosophical way which seems to have become popular in the business in recent years.