The Descendants is an excellent depiction of family relationships; along with the impact tragedy has upon them and the humor that often arises from it. George Clooney plays Matt King, a frugal father and lawyer who is the sole trustee of a large inherited plot of land on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. As the family is nearing a close on selling the land, Matt’s wife Elizabeth is in a boating accident and is put in a coma. Matt, who describes himself as a “back-up-parent,” now must shoulder the responsibility of raising two daughters: Scottie, 10 and Alex, 17. Scottie responds to her mother’s state by acting out at school. Alex (Shailene Woodley) is away at boarding school and could seemingly care less. When Matt finds out that Elizabeth will never wake up from her coma and they must pull the plug, he gathers Scottie, Alex and boyfriend Sid to break the news to the family. On the journey Alex reveals that before the accident her mother had been cheating on Matt, and planned on leaving him. Despite this news, Matt soldiers on in his mission. In the process he receives a verbal lashing from his father-in-law, who blames Matt’s lack of attention for his daughter’s death. Later on, Matt decides to face the man who made a cuckold out of him (played by Matthew Lillard,) before his wife’s passing. The end of the film is a sweet goodbye to his wife and a step in a new direction for his family; in terms of Matt’s inheritance and his relationship with his children.
On the surface, The Descendants is about a family who has the rug pulled from underneath them and must find their footing once more. Dig a little deeper and it is a film about defying expectations; both in and outside of the story. The King family is relying on Matt to sell their inherited land, making them all very wealthy. Ultimately he has to ignore what is expected of him and make the decision that he feels is right. Likewise, it seems we as viewers have an innate desire to see our protagonists get their just deserts; after all, this is fantasy. In that respect, Matt defies audience expectations in the way that he addresses his wife’s adultery. Of course he is devastated, but he doesn’t use that pain as an excuse to tarnish his family’s pristine image of his wife. Clooney’s Matt has multiple opportunities to fire back at his father-in-law’s personal attacks, but he doesn’t; he instead allows a father to remember his daughter the way he should. The way Matt handles the entire situation is a true testament to his love for his passing wife; just because his world is shattered doesn’t mean everyone else’s needs to be.
Clooney has received much well-deserved praise for the role, expressing the full range of emotions necessary for such a rock/hard place scenario. Shailene Woodley carries the responsibility of simultaneously being a rebel daughter and a dutiful sister. Amara Miller’s Scottie brings a lot of quirky joy to the screen that reminded me of Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine. Then there is Jerry O’Connell look-a-like Nick Krause, who plays Alex’s boyfriend Sid. Initially I questioned his introduction, but later realized that he served as an excellent (and stupidly comedic) jury-of-your-peers role for the family. There are some things you just can’t say to the ones you love, so it’s nice to have a truly objective point of view. Last but not least is beautiful Hawaii itself. Throughout the movie my friend and I kept saying one of two things “I miss Lost” (obviously) and “This makes me want to go to Hawaii right now.”
Bottom Line: You should probably see The Descendants if you haven’t already. It’s a great movie about the strength of a family and the difficulty of doing right by them.
Final Grade: A- (Minus ONLY because I have a hard time believing any woman would cheat on Clooney with Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. You KNOW I’m right.)