Matt King (Clooney) is a Honolulu-based lawyer and the sole trustee of a family trust that controls 25,000 acres of pristine land on the island of Kaua’i. Because a trust has determined they must sell the land, the only question remains is who the lucky bidder will be. In the midst of negotiating a deal that will make him and his countless cousins extremely rich, a devastating boating accident puts his wife Elizabeth in an irreversible coma.
If that wasn’t enough, he learns from his rebellious teenage daughter Alex (Woodley) that Elizabeth was cheating on him. With Alex’s help, Matt sets out to discovering the identity of his wife’s suitor to tell him himself about her condition. Beyond that, Matt doesn’t have a plan or a clue, and even if he did, he has no idea where to start with his daughters.
10-year-old Scottie (Miller) is acting out and 17-year-old Alex sleeps with older men and drinks a lot. For comic relief, Alex’s stoner friend Sid (Krause) comes along for the ride. There is an aching sadness that permeates Payne’s first film since Sideways (2004), a movie dripping with character and irony. After all, how can things be so bad when lush paradise surrounds them on all sides?
The best Clooney vehicles have found the movie star at the center of a movie where he’s playing a larger-than-life guy: a superstar politician, a slick thief, a corporate fixer. But here, he’s the guy next door with the world up his backside. He tries valiantly to juggle (and at times combine) his disparate worlds, and becomes one of the most likable characters of the year.
Woodley is sensational as his foul-mouthed daughter. Forster steals his few scenes as Elizabeth’s angry father. Lillard surprises as the object of Clooney’s ire (in more than one way). Hastie may lie in a bed for the entire film but her presence looms over the film.
The Descendants is a perfect little movie, full of heart and laughs, and the kind of sublime details about the families we choose, and the families we are born into. It’s a movie made up of the small moments that resonate long after Matt Hill and his family fade to black.
— DENNIS WILLIS