The Descendants
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 in Hawaii , 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 “ Paradise ,” 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, Irving , Texas