In the beginning of the new film The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne, Matt King (George Clooney) remarks in a voiceover that people and family on the mainland think everyone in Hawaii just lives this tropical, blissful, lifestyle all day every day. He wryly observes that it is not all paradise all of the time. “I haven’t been on a surfboard in 15 years,” he says. Life, with all of its trouble and heartache, touches Hawaiians too. Even Honolulu is plagued with traffic at times as on the mainland. (By the way, “mainland” is the term Hawaiians use to refer to the lower 48 U.S. states in the same manner that people in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland refer to the rest of Europe as “the continent.”) Matt King’s wife is in the hospital on life support after suffering from a horrific boating accident off of Waikiki Beach. After being informed by her doctor that she will not recover, he must inform his young daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), of the tragic news.
The relationship he has with them is somewhat estranged; particularly from his older daughter Alexandra. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when he tells his daughter Alexandra that her mother is not going to live long. She goes underwater in their swimming pool to weep from the news. She in turn informs him that her mother was having an affair with another man. It is later implied that this was partly the result of Matt (George Clooney) and his wife growing apart over the years. There are little clues in the set design of the film to inform us that their marriage had grown apart and that the family is estranged like the way the backyard pool has leaves in it and is apparently seldom maintained. Once this tragic affair is revealed, the father and daughter begin a search together to find the man the woman was having an affair with. It turns out the guy is a local realtor and some of the other family members were aware of it. So even in a tropical paradise, life gets complicated and has its share of trouble. Well, of course! However, it’s easy to forget that if you don’t live in Hawaii and just think of it as a vacation getaway destination.
In the midst of this turmoil, the King family is deciding what to do with a huge piece of beautiful land that has been in their family since the 19th century. It is owned by several of the family members in a trust which expires in seven years. Should it be kept in its pristine, undeveloped, tropical state or should it be developed into golf courses and beachfront houses and resorts? Which option the family goes with will ultimately hinge on Matt King’s decision. This issue plays out against the backdrop of the family working through the tragedy of the boating accident. The Descendants is a great film because it is about some of the basic problems of human life which are universal in all parts of the world and time periods but play out uniquely in their own particular context of time and place: in this instance, that of contemporary Hawaii. A similar story could have taken place and probably has taken place in the rural midwestern United States, in England, or among an African tribe, or nearly any other part of the globe, whether in contemporary times or the distant past.
People in all times and places have dealt with the loss of loved ones in accidents, the heartbreak and anger from affairs, and wrestled over what to do with the ancient familial land that many humans are inextricably tied to. This film takes those universal problems and places them in the context of contemporary Hawaii and unmistakably so. At the same time, the film is not a travelogue commercial for the beautiful locations of Hawaii though there certainly are plenty of beautiful shots of Hawaii in the film. I enjoyed seeing familiar shots of Oahu since I was just there this past summer for my brother and now sister-in-law’s wedding. It is a great film for all of the above reasons and for the wonderful subtle performance of George Clooney. We never see him fully break down but in each scene of the film we are acutely aware of the pain and frustration his character Matt King is thinking and feeling, whether or not words are said. His scenes with all of his family members are quite compelling to watch too. Also, despite the serious subject matter, the film is not a downer and has some funny moments. Thankfully they are genuinely funny and make sense in the context of the plot and the characters. There is no cheap comic relief just thrown in randomly.
The film ends with the father and his two daughters watching March of the Penguins together cuddled up on the couch. At first it is just Scottie. He walks over with a bowl of ice cream and sits down next to her and pulls the blanket over the two of them. They share the ice cream. Soon, the older daughter Alexandra appears in the background. She walks over with a bowl of ice cream and sits down right next to her father opposite her sister on the small couch. She doesn’t need to ask him if she can sit there. She just does. Of course he doesn’t mind. She is his daughter. The father takes turns sharing the two bowls of ice cream with his daughters as they watch the movie. No words are exchanged. They have each other now and despite the loss they have been through, they are going to be okay.