George Clooney and Shailene Woodley star in The Descendants. *Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
George Clooney and Shailene Woodley star in The Descendants. *Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Stars: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Robert Forster
Director: Alexander Payne
Rated: R
Showing: Neptune Cinema week of Friday, March 9. For more information call 292-7296.
Tickets: Buy tickets online
Runtime: 115 minutes

Alexander Payne turns his Sideways eye on Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel about family dysfunction in Hawaii. The Descendants is a lovely, heartfelt character study of common, everyday people trapped on the horns of an uncommon but not unheard-of dilemma.

George Clooney stars as Matt King, a lawyer and absentee dad living what "my friends on the mainland" assume is a permanent vacation, a life in paradise. But he's quick to tell us (by voice over narration), that they're not "immune to life", living in the land of the never-ending luau.

First, his wife's in a coma, so brain-injured in a boating accident that she's not likely to recover. Then, there's his family's landed-gentry status, the thousands of acres of Hawaiian farmland that they own in a collective trust which his many relatives want him to, as trustee, sell for development.

But about that coma wife: Matt's been "the back up parent" for years. Now he has daughters to communicate with - 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) has to be told her mom is going to die, and rebellious boarding school brat Alex (Shailene Woodley) has to be fetched, brought home and convinced to behave herself as Dad breaks it to friends and relatives that his life-of-the-party spouse isn't going to make it.

Matt, however, is so out of the loop that he's missed the obvious. The wife was cheating on him. Alex knew. Others did, too. Now Matt wants to know who the guy is, wants some sort of closure. And he needs Alex's help for that.

Payne stirs all this into a rich, wistful brew. The Descendants has a wake, sad family get-togethers and family confrontations and hopeless moments in which the only thing Matt has to cling to are thoughts of revenge on the guy his wife was cheating with, a man he's determined to stalk.

Woodley, of The Secret Life of An American Teenager, beautifully gets across the child who has to take on an adult role but is nowhere near up to the task, despite her rude bravado. Nick Krause is agreeably goofy as her tag-along pal Sid, who has a gift for saying the wrong thing, especially in front of Alex's grumpy grandpa (Robert Forster, terrific).

Matt King is, for the 50-year-old Clooney, his first true middle-aged-man role. Clooney has to play competent but confused, a man whose value system seems sound until others question those values. It's a tricky performance, conveying heartbreak and fury, poignancy and pragmatism. It's some of his best work ever.

At times, Payne stumbles and takes us out of this engaging but slight tale. The stalking of the wife's lover seems like strained invention and Sid is a simple plot device.

But The Descendants, like Sideways and About Schmidt, lets Payne show us the Other America and the Other Americans - little lives caught up in small but epic problems far away from the La La Land of Hollywood hype, sex and violence. In his hands, Hawaii seems a lot more than sun, surf, hula skirts and umbrella drinks, and the people there as universal as anyone who works, loves, loses and struggles.

Also showing: The Artist
Next attraction: John Carter