Alexander Payne is at it again. The director’s latest effort, The Descendants, is his first feature film since 2004, and it might just be his best work yet. Well-cast and beautifully shot, The Descendants is an incredibly poignant film that should strike a chord with today’s audiences.

The film stars George Clooney as Matt King a successful Hawaii-based lawyer whose wife Elizabeth is sent into a coma after a boating accident. As a result, Matt is forced to reconnect with his two daughters, 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). This is particularly difficult for Matt, a self-described “backup parent” whose busy work schedule has left him out of touch and confounded by the behavior of modern day kids.

At the same time, Matt is working on a high-profile sale of valuable land in Kauai that his family inherited from their descendants, King Kamehameha and Hawaiian royal family. Life becomes difficult for Matt as he deals with the attention and pressure associated with the sale, and even more so later when he learns that Elizabeth will not awaken from her coma and eventually die. Further complicating matters, Matt learns from his eldest daughter that Elizabeth was having an affair with a real estate agent named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). Matt winds up traveling with both his daughters to find Brian and inform him of Elizabeth’s condition.

Clooney’s performance as Matt may be the best of his career. That’s a strong statement for an actor who already has more than a dozen celebrated roles and has won an Oscar, but Clooney shows range that he’s never displayed before. While Clooney typically plays confident, self-assured characters, he takes on a much more vulnerable role this time around.

Payne’s leading men are usually ordinary people put into extraordinary situations that overwhelm them. Clooney deftly handles the challenge, tackling Matt’s emotions as he seems like a hopeless father to two extremely troubled girls, and as he’s a powerless soon-to-be widower with no idea how to confront Speer.

Another standout performance comes from Woodley, who is perfectly cast as Matt’s teenage daughter. Woodley expertly expresses the teen angst that comes with a character who has used drugs and alcohol and been shipped off to boarding school as a result. Her character growth over the course of the film is fascinating to watch, as she goes from manipulative spoiled brat to her father’s closest ally and de facto maternal figure for Scottie. Adding comic relief to the film is Nick Krause, who plays Alexandra’s friend Sid. His character best encapsulates the dramatic generation gap that exists in the film, and it’s a treat to see him tag along for the ride.

A significant character in the film is the state of Hawaii itself. While most films portray Hawaii as an island paradise, Payne is unafraid to the show the state as it really is – a place that has poverty and problems, just like any other state. Rather than making Hawaii seem bright 24/7, Payne is not above displaying the rapidly shifting climate, the humidity, and the alternating patches of light and cloud cover.

Payne is an expert at making his films feel real and relatable. Anyone who has had to say good-bye to a relative understands the pain that the King family is going through. Any parent who feels confounded the behavior of today’s kids will find that much of The Descendants resonates with them. Rather than having big and bold scenes with dramatic actions, Payne’s scenes offer a sense of authenticity as his characters have real reactions to dramatic problems. The film is also beautifully shot, showing all the quirks of Hawaii, and he expertly uses sound (or lack of sound) to display real emotion.

With the Oscar race beginning to heat up, The Descendants is probably the strongest entry in the field to date. While its aims are not as ambitious or grand as some other films being considered, it touches you in a way that many other movies can’t. To this point, it would have my vote for Best Picture.