Normally, I automatically recoil when I
hear cuss words come from the mouths of children in films, especially when
only used for shock value, or a cheap laugh at the incongruity (of course, the
more it’s used, the less incongruous it is).
But I make an exception for “The Descendants.”
Two of the primary characters are children: they are sisters, they are
10 and 17, and not only have they been a bit neglected/ignored at home,
launching them into the company of peers with scatological tendencies, now
they face a family crisis of significant proportion to make anyone cuss.
Amara Miller, in her cinematic debut,
plays Scottie, the younger daughter, who wants to look up to her older sister,
Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), except she’s been sent off to boarding school
on another island. All this takes place
, but hopping around from one island to another, as if, as the main character
says, his family is like the archipelago---separate, distinct, and distant.
Oh yes, the main character, Matt King, is played by George Clooney,
playing against type: bewildered, uncertain, and simmering with impotent rage,
wondering if his misfortune is his own fault. Matt
King is a real estate attorney so wrapped up in his work that he fails to
discern his wife’s deep unhappiness, and his children’s growing
disaffection. He honestly admits that
he doesn’t really know his daughters, having assumed the “secondary
parent” role, or “available substitute” part.
He’s been busy with a huge land deal that involves his own
inheritance; a pristine 25,000-acre estate that is on the cusp of not being
owned by the family anymore, because of a new law against “perpetuity” (is
that “redistribute the wealth” wishful thinking, or more like the
“jubilee year” statutes of the Old Testament?).
It seems that Mr. King is polling his many cousins to see what they
think of the idea of selling the land to developers, but not only does that
make their greed transparent (see the 10th commandment), it also
brings certain surprise family connections into the equation.
Meanwhile, Mr. King’s wife is in a
horrible boating accident, and is currently in a coma, having already signed
papers that forbid keeping her on life support.
So as the grim situation marches toward permanent resolution, Matt
tries to gather his family together, and be a family, in a way they hadn’t
experienced before, as he learns more than he cares to know about his wife’s
reckless activities preceding the accident. He
attempts to direct his older daughter’s attention to caring for her younger
sister, but neither seem very interested or cooperative.
They both have their own anger issues, and Matt is completely at sea in
knowing how to deal with them. But at
least he’s honest in his sense of incompetence.
And eventually, they begin to respond to his awkward attempts to care
for them in a way he hasn’t demonstrated before.
The whole drama is played with this
beautiful backdrop of palm-lined “
,” with authentic-sounding Hawaiian music as the backdrop, which lends an
air of overarching serenity, even calming counterpoint, to the turmoil of
emotions before us on the screen. Somehow
we never really expect “happily ever after.”
But this feels real, and so we are content with a kind of restored
equilibrium that is both hard-earned and predictably unsustainable.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim Pastor,
St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church,