As they chase leads to the nearby island of Kauai, Matt’s anger gives way to unexpected and surprising (some would even say foolish) levels of grace. But it is the extension of grace that allows Matt to heal, forgive, let go, and recapture love in a deeper way that is, perhaps for the first time, selfless. He finally, truly knows her . . . and still loves her.

It’s a love not defined by feelings but rather made in spite of them, in spite of hurt, birthed from a newfound humility, a recognition of flawed humanity, not requiring reciprocation, and the courage to accept that regardless of what choices they’ve made he still loves her, he always has, and will likely be the last who ever will. In the act of extending grace to her, he receives it himself.

Even with the small but crucial supporting turns considered, The Descendants is ultimately a two-person powerhouse of George Clooney and relative newcomer Shailene Woodley (TV’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager) as Alexandra.

Clooney gives Matt a basis of polite repression that fits well into the Hawaiian culture, then exposes pain even as he tries to suppress it, only to give way to appropriate outbursts that ring true in grief. It’s a guarded yet, at turns, unpredictably raw performance that may garner Clooney his second Academy Award. 

Oscar-buzz will certainly surround Woodley, too. As the smart but emotionally-conflicted teenager, she shows a deeper turmoil beneath the extroverted angst. We eventually sympathize for this initially petulant brat, all to Woodley’s credit. Never self-conscious or showy, Woodley inhabits every moment. She is a real discovery.

Payne’s patient direction gives these actors the moments and time they need to explore and reveal, with tones both humorous and dramatic. While the quirky, satirical and even provocative sensibilities of Payne’s previous efforts emerge here, The Descendants is his most tender film to date. Sideways was gentle in moments, but here tenderness is a constant undercurrent even in the midst of conflict. Payne’s not just fascinated by these characters; he empathizes.

Though The Descendants is a universally affecting film at its core, the liberal use of profanities and occasional crude sexual references will take many viewers by surprise, and certainly rub some the wrong way (especially as much of the frank dialogue comes from a teenager). Nevertheless, it’s true to the nature of a family that denies its own dysfunction and then finds itself ill-equipped to cope with unavoidable realities. Would that we all choose grace under similar circumstances.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: A teenage girl is drunk, and profanely mouths-off to her father. Adults drink casually in other scenes, but not intoxicated. 
  • Language/Profanity: Profanities are consistent throughout, including common usage of the f-word. The s-word is used a handful of times. The GD form of taking the Lord’s name in vain is used about six times. Much of the profane content is delivered by a teenage girl. A grade school girl “flips the bird” on two occasions, and uses a few profanities as well.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: Sexually crude words are used. Multiple uses of the “t”-word and “p”-word (both slang for female genitalia) are spoken in a few different scenes, by a teenager. A reference is made to masturbation. A reference to porn is made when porn movie options are seen on a hotel TV. The term “nuts” is used in a crude sexual manner.
  • Violence: An older man punches a young man in the face (in a comical context).