Contender: ‘The Descendants’

The Contenders 2011

Don’t let the flowered shirts and soft Hawaiian breeze fool you: “The Descendants” will receive a hard-core kudos push from Fox Searchlight.

Writer-director Alexander Payne has been in Oscar’s sights before, winning for his screenplay of “Sideways.” Payne was also nominated for directing the wine-infused dramedy, as well as for writing the Reese Witherspoon starrer “Election.” Given the strong reviews “The Descendants” attracted at the Telluride, Toronto and New York film fests, both Payne’s direction and screenplay will get serious consideration.

Clooney’s multi-layered leading-man role — as a father reconnecting with his children after learning his comatose wife had been cheating on him — may be a departure from the actor’s starrier early work, but the Academy loves Clooney’s versatility, previously nominating him in the lead, supporting actor, writer and director categories. (He won for his supporting role in 2005’s “Syriana.”)

Newcomer Shailene Woodley stands out among the rest of the cast as Clooney’s rebellious teenage daughter. The Academy tends to love fresh discoveries in this category (such as Hailee Steinfeld and Saoirse Ronan in recent years), which bodes well for the “Secret Life of the American Teenager” TV star’s bigscreen debut.

Vet Robert Forster offers a nice turn as Clooney’s father-in-law and could have some allies in the Academy.

Release: Nov. 16
Fox Searchlight

Read the Variety review