The Descendants is a small story that made for a Big Night at the Starz Denver Film Festival

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The Big Night presentation of the annual Starz Denver Film Festival has become a showcase for future Academy Award nominees: The last four flicks featured in this slot included three excellent Oscar magnets -- Juno, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours -- with even the sometimes ponderous The Last Station earning a couple of nods. And there's little doubt this streak will continue. The odds of The Descendants failing to generate award-season love are essentially nil, as Saturday's Big Night throng learned firsthand.

The flick was introduced by festival executive director Tom Botelho, who noted that the event is continuing to grow despite a challenging fundraising environment -- a nice way of saying it's not easy in the current economy to convince potential donors to unscrew their socks. Nonetheless, the sprawling Ellie Caulkins Opera House was sold out, with even the elevated back-row, bar-stool-like chairs occupied -- one of them by yours truly.

The Descendants more than justified this turnout, and the buzz surrounding it, even though its tone is decidedly low-key. Director Alexander Payne's first film since 2004's Sideways is a subtle comedy-drama in which George Clooney dials down his starpower in a big way. No dashing outfits, no stunning smiles, no tilted eyebrows, no ironic delivery, and no miscasting, either, even though this perpetual playboy is cast as a faithful husband whose wife cheats on him. That Clooney is believable in this role is an accomplishment in and of itself.

The story finds Clooney's character, Matt, negotiating with a wide array of family members about how best to dispose of a massive chunk of land in his native Hawaii at the same time that his wife is being kept alive by machines following a catastrophic boating accident. Her condition stirs heartache and guilt compounded by Matt's realization that he's been an inattentive father to his two daughters, teen rebel Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and handful-in-training Scottie (Amara Miller).

Alexandra's subsequent revelation that her mom had been cheating on Matt adds more emotions to the mix, and Payne handles the fallout with a comic touch founded on his attentiveness to the small absurdities in life. At one point, Matt runs down a hill to the home of neighbors likely to know the truth about his wife's love life, and the director observes Clooney's flat-footed gait, required to keep his sandals from flying off, in a long shot that emphasizes silliness without losing its empathy. In the end, Alexandra joins Matt's quest to meet and confront his wife's lover, Brian, played by Matthew Lillard, of Scooby-Doo fame. Yes, Payne asks us to believe that George Clooney could be cuckolded by the guy who played Shaggy, and while the idea is funny, it's also credible within the universe the filmmaker creates. So, too, are the reactions of Brian's wife, played by Judy Greer, winner of the festival's annual John Cassavetes award. She's best known for playing comic roles on TV series like Arrested Development and Two and a Half Men, but the underlying sadness she brings to her part here proves she's capable of a lot more. The resolution of the land deal becomes intertwined with Matt's personal drama in a way that may strike some viewers as a bit contrived -- and they'd be right. But Payne effectively downplays these elements to focus on the relationships of the central characters -- particular the growing bond between Clooney's Matt and Woodley's Alexandra. She's got many of the film's best lines, and she delivers them with the sort of multi-faceted verve that explains why she's been the subject of at least as much Oscar talk as her infinitely more famous co-star.

As for the last shot, which Payne holds for a minute or so, I won't spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that it will sneak up on viewers -- and especially parents -- in a way that's so eloquent in its simplicity that they may find themselves puddling up at the thought of it days later. As is happening as I type these words on a Monday morning, a day and a half after the credits rolled.

Clearly, it was another Big Night at the Starz Denver Film Festival.

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More from our Television & Film archive: "Starz Denver Film Festival 2011 Opening Night: Like Crazy works like crazy."

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