George Clooney picks his projects carefully. He rarely has a stumble, and even when he does, his performance itself is usually still a bright spot. The Descendants falls into the same vein of his film from two years ago, Up in the Air. It is a smaller budget film with a killer script that gives him the chance to shine. He is also, interestingly, surrounded by women in both movies.
It’s not that Clooney only does well whilst in the company of women–his dynamic with Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in the Oceans trilogy is legendary as far as onscreen chemistry goes. But in both of Clooney’s recent highly-acclaimed films, he is not the only one being recognized for skillful acting. With Up in the Air, both Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick received Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress. In The Descendants, Shailene Woodley–the girl you best know as from that bad pregnant teen show on ABC Family–already received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance. She deserves it. Only eighteen when the movie was filmed, Woodley completely steals the show. It is a bit to Clooney’s credit that the women with whom he shares the screen shine.
The Descendants is a quality film. Woodley gives her character, Alexandra, all of the edge and sass of a misunderstood teenager, but she is also heartbreakingly vulnerable. There is a moment when she submerges herself in the family pool and begins to sob that probably won her that Golden Globe nomination on its own. The young Amara Miller plays her ten-year-old sister Scottie with honesty and realness. In fact, every actor in this film breaths life into his or her character–perhaps why the film has also scooped up a SAG nomination for Best Ensemble.
The dialogue is natural and sharp. The script is very often funny despite its heavy subject matter. Director Alexander Payne often brings the camera back to the haunting image of the comatose mother, and I do not know of any other film so full of sadness that also brings so many laughs. Payne gives the whole film a bit of a “home video” feel, panning where other directors would cut and sometimes keeping things handheld. There are, to be honest, a few scenes that feel superfluous. Toward the end of the second act, you can feel him dragging. Despite this, The Descendants is truly an examination of the workings of one family, and the direction does well to make it feel that way.
The ending of the film fizzles and dies a little bit because there are not many places this story could take you. It is not about resolution–rather, about moving on when there is nothing else you can do. The Descendants is quietly triumphant. There is no aha moment to be had.
I have not yet put a dent in all of the movies that I need to see in preparation for the Oscars season. But, having seen what I have, The Descendants is in a good position for not only an Academy Award nomination, but a real chance of winning.
It must also be said that Nick Krause, as Alexandra’s friend Sid, takes the scene every time he opens his mouth. I hope to see that kid in a lot of smart comedy in the future.