THE DESCENDANTS (Alexander Payne)
It is one of the serious contenders for basically any category this year at the 84th Academy Awards (it has five nominations) and the kind of film that Oscar voters usually root for, but awards or no awards, THE DESCENDANTS is an undeniably poignant and often humorous exploration of family, life, and death, and about things entrusted to us. George Clooney gives a quiet performance as Matt King, the workaholic father and husband who has to deal with his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) succumbing into comatose after a boating accident.
As the trailer would tell you, Matt learns that his wife was having an affair, and the treatment of that subject is neither complacent nor judgmental; Matt seeks out the "other guy" for answers, and yet he admits later in the movie his own shortcomings that led to his wife's unhappiness.
Also, he would have to deal with taking care of his two daughters, which he has never done fully before since his wife was around to do that. An uneasy relationship ensues, but the road to tracking the "other guy" (who turns out to be Shaggy from SCOOBY DOO) became an opportunity for father and daughters to spend some family time together.
Alexander Payne, who created possibly one of the world's most beautiful and wittiest meditation on life, 2004's SIDEWAYS, applies his usual wit and humor here, where a sensitive matter such as death is told with optimism and open mindedness. The whole family, especially Matt and his 17 year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) go through the stages of death and dying, but with the admirable quality of bravery.
The Hawaiian landscape is captured breathtakingly by Phedon Papamichael's lens, its beauty engulfing the screen, and reaching out to us as if mirroring the issues of death and dying as something to be prepared for, and to be seen other than grim.
In a larger context, the subplot concerning the parcel of land that is up for sale, and to which Matt is the sole trustee and has the say whether or not to let go, contrasts the issue about his wife. The story of the movie then, is about what things to let go and what to hold on to.
Shailene Woodley proves a capable actress here, as Matt's teenage daughter starting to deal with the issues of their family. There is a future for this youngster.
Even Beau Bridges has a small but important role here, as one of Matt's many cousins. The last I saw him was still in THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS with his brother ('the' Jeff Bridges).
How do we deal with things that are not ours, when it's time to decide if we should let them go, or keep them? It is easy to decide and take the convenient option, but what THE DESCENDANTS is concerned with is the other choice, the harder one, making us realize in the process that life can move on, but roads not taken we can never return to. At least not in the immediate future.