It's fall, Academy Award season is upon us, and it's time for those films that seem to beg for Oscar attention. You know the ones where an actor either plays a historical figure, gains or loses a lot of weight, or has lots of opportunities to chew the scenery like a Texas steak.
J. Edgar, we're lookin' at you.
But then there are other types of films where it's less about the grand gesture and big moments than the intimate details and subtle performances. Such is the case with The Descendants, a comedic family drama where nothing brutally explosive happens but the film is quietly powerful nonetheless.
George Clooney is Matt King, a Honolulu lawyer whose wife (Patricia Hastie) is in a coma following a boating accident. He has two rebellious daughters -- teenage Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, The Secret Life of the American Teenager) and 10-year-old Scottie (newcomer Amara Miller) -- whom he doesn't know how to raise. He also has a busload of cousins on his back because he's the trustee over valuable real estate that the family owns and most of the cousins want to sell. The Descendants, then, is the story of a man in the midst of crisis; a guy becoming untethered from the world -- marriage, family, the land -- that he had long known.
Based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings and directed/co-written by Alexander Payne (Sideways), The Descendants employs a light touch that is disarming. The cinematography from Phedon Papamichael (The Ides of March) is postcard-pretty, but with glimpses of an urban Hawaii not usually seen in movies. And, as in Sideways, there are plenty of humorous moments, many of them involving Alexandra's clueless boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause).
Yet underneath the smooth surface roils an emotional ocean. Before the accident, Matt had promised himself that he was going to try and repair his collapsing marriage and Alexandra, in the throes of acting out in the early part of the film, had had a big fight with her mother. If Mom doesn't wake up, both father and daughter may end up hounded the rest of their lives by regret.
Although the (largely unknown) ensemble is excellent, it's Clooney who really stands out. Avoiding many of the tics and mannerisms that have become his trademark, he plays a man who suddenly finds himself helpless in the face of what life has tossed at him. It's not a flashy performance, merely one that is instantly recognizable as honest.
Also intriguing is the setting, the Hawaii of contemporary reality as opposed to tourist cliches. Many of the peripheral and secondary characters appear to be of Polynesian/Hawaiian descent, faces not usually seen in major Hollywood dramas.
The Descendants isn't the loudest film of the season but it doesn't need to be. This is a case where speaking softly reveals hard truths.