Character growth seems like a lost art in many films these days but I’m happy to say that self-discovery plays a prominent role in The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s first film since Sideways seven years ago. Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, George Clooney is Matt King, a well-to-do real estate lawyer, who lives with his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) and two daughters, Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) in Hawaii. At the outset, Matt’s voice over tells us not to expect Hawaii to be a paradise, that while it has beautiful scenery, it’s not a paradise to those whose life is a daily grind and where family problems are as troublesome as anywhere else.
Matt, whose family has deep roots in Hawaii, is the executor of a trust that holds 25,000 acres of beachside property, land that has been in the family for 150 years. He and his cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) are in the process of collecting bids from big developers who want to turn it into resort property but Matt has the final say. While the negotiations are taking place, tragedy strikes. Matt’s wife Elizabeth is in the hospital, seriously injured and in a coma from a boating accident. As a result, Matt has to assume the obligation of being both father and mother to his young daughters, especially being caring and present to their needs, attributes that seem to have been missing in his relationship with his family.
It is quite obvious from the rebellious behavior of his daughters that they feel emotionally isolated and unloved. Seventeen-year-old Alex has been sent to a boarding school on another island for drug problems while ten-year-old Scottie has been sending threatening text messages to a girl in her class and is forced to apologize in person at her friend’s home. After Alex comes home, Matt’s world receives another jolt when, during a confrontation, she confesses to him that she knows her mom had been cheating on him for some time. Matt seems passive and uncertain as to how to deal with a difficult situation and appears to be more upset about the adultery than anything else.
Though only a few days ago, Matt fantasized about how things would be different when she wakes up, he now learns that Elizabeth most likely will not recover from her injuries and searches for the best way to tell his family and friends. He asks Alex and Scottie to go with him to Elizabeth’s parents to tell them first that she will not recover. Things become emotionally inflamed when Alex brings her boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), a teenage stoner stereotype. When Sid makes dumb and inappropriate remarks, her grandfather Scott (Robert Forster) reacts in a childish way by throwing a punch at him, then they all have to listen to him berate Matt for not meeting his daughter’s needs.
Sid is in The Descendants presumably for comic effect, but his effect is more offensive than comic. Implausibly, Matt goes to Sid late one night to ask for his advice on how to deal with his daughters, a ludicrous venture, but, in the process, discovers that beneath his irritating front, Sid is also going through his own grieving process. After some investigating, Matt discovers that the man Elizabeth had been seeing and was apparently in love with is Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), also in real estate and who stands to profit from the sale of Matt’s land. He decides to find Brian, not only to see what he is like but to invite him to visit Elizabeth at the hospital. The girls go with him to Kauai where Speer is on business and discovers that he is staying in a house directly opposite the beach they are visiting.
Matthew’s encounter with Speer and his wife (Judy Greer) enables him to communicate his pain and let go of some of his anger. But the process of letting go is not complete until he “talks” to his wife at the hospital, and begins to connect with his daughters in a way that was not possible only a short time ago. This connection also plays a role in how the real estate sale is handled. The Descendants is both funny and touching and the performance of George Clooney is one of his best, but it is not a perfect film. As in other recent works with a theme of forgiveness, important teachable moments, especially at the hospital, are overlooked. Also getting in the way is the materialist philosophy espoused my Matt that “everything just happens,” not aware perhaps that, in fact, everything does happen for a reason.
These considerations notwithstanding, The Descendants is a strong film, marked by superb performances, especially by Clooney, Woodley, and Greer, outstanding cinematography by Phedon Papamichael, and a feeling of authenticity. On the surface, it is about the grieving process, but, underneath, it is about connection and responsibility to the planet we inhabit and to those who are on this journey with us. As author John Major Jenkins said, “Let’s remember that emergence is attended by a sense of emergency, and this is a hallmark of spiritual awakening. We may even call it a crisis, a crossroads. A collective crucifixion as we ride the wave of earth’s apotheosis, awakening to the sacredness of the living sanctuary that our ancestors simply called home.”