Alexander Payne’s The Descendants is a film best described as a well crafted short story. It doesn’t condescend to the audience. Scenes never go exactly where you think (or fear) they will. It allows its characters a measure of grace to evolve, without telegraphing the moral. Hours later, I am still unpacking the layers. Clooney is solid but unshowy; he cedes the center to Shailene Woodley’s knockout performance as his daughter.
It’s worth adding that this is another great family film in a year that also had Beginners – both are stories that celebrate deep family values (although James Dobson hasn’t endorsed either one, to my knowledge.)