A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this quietly powerful George Clooney dramedy from the director of Election and Sideways careens between dark and light moments in a snap -- and some of the dark moments are really dark. Because of this heaviness and the movie's mature subject matter (death, infidelity), The Descendants is too much for younger teens and tweens, even though the cast prominently features a 10-year-old (who cusses) and her older teen sister (played by The Secret Life of the American Teenager's Shailene Woodley). There's also a fair amount of swearing (including "f--k" and "s--t") and some underage drinking, including one scene in which a teen girl is caught drunk.
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What's the story?
Real estate attorney Matt King (George Clooney) knows that he's never been the go-to parent for his two daughters, 10-year-old Scotty (Amara Miller), who's testing her boundaries with swearing and "mean girling," and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), sent to boarding school after a bout with drugs and alcohol. Matt's wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), has been there for the girls, but now she's lying in a coma after a motorboat accident. Matt and Elizabeth's marriage had been floundering, eroded by too much work and not enough togetherness; still, he loves her. So when Alexandra tells him that Elizabeth had been cheating, it all starts to feel like a pile-on. What now? Meanwhile, Matt's cousins eagerly await his decision on another matter: Will he agree to sell the family's land holdings -- inheritance from their Hawaiian royal ancestors -- to a developer?
Is it any good?
THE DESCENDANTS, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, unspools as if on island time, strolling barefoot on the beach with little regard to the clock. The voiceover is superfluous, and the tragic moments are rescued from the brink by humor that's sometimes too on the nose. It might be annoying, were it not for the fact that the film is also a transcendent, emotional powerhouse.
Lay the plots out on paper, and it's unbelievable how director Alexander Payne manages to cram them all in while ensuring that the movie's important moments remain authentic. Bravo! He doesn't hurry the layers as they pile on; he simply allows them to do as they will until the sum total suddenly, completely stuns. The biggest kudos belongs to the cast, who all seem to have simply decided to give themselves over to the characters. Even Clooney does away with his typical sophisticated swagger, clopping along on too-noisy flip-flops, wearing defiantly hokey Hawaiian shirts, and letting the gray settle in. It may be his most vulnerable role yet.
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