The Descendants opens with a narration that pretty much outlines the thesis of the film: life happens to us all, no matter where we are or what our circumstances are, as we are all subject to loss, pain, grief, sadness, happiness, joy and everything else that makes up what we know to be as our existence. For example, just because the protagonists of this particular story happen to live in Hawaii, a postcard of paradise for 99% of the world, doesn’t mean that they aren’t struggling with the big curveballs that gets thrown their way.
Matt King (George Clooney, The American, The Ides of March) is the direct descendant of a Hawaiian Princess and a wealthy white missionary, and this makes him the sole trustee of a land trust for 25,000 acres of unspoiled land. Due to new perpetuity laws, the trust will be dissolving in seven years, so Matt is being pressured by his numerous broke cousins to sell the land to a local developer, netting millions for all of them. The money makes it sound like a no-brainer, but Matt doesn’t necessarily live for money – he has plenty of money in a trust already, money that he doesn’t touch so he can give it all to his daughters, and he makes a good living already as a real estate lawyer, so he doesn’t need to sell the land personally. On top of that, he feels pressure from the local communities, resistant to the suburban sprawl and high traffic that this land development would bring, and probably some ancestral pressure, considering the land is indeed entrusted to him, and all he’s gonna do is sell it off to developers just to make some money? Is that what those people entrusted their descendants to do?
And about those daughters, Matt’s own immediate descendants; first there is the youngest Scottie (Amara Miller), a middle school kid who likes to swear and bully other kids and who acts out to get the attention of her parents. And then there is Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, The Secret Life of the American Teenager), who was shipped off to a boarding school after unnamed substance abuse problems got her in trouble with her folks. And these two daughters happen to be a particular nuisance to Matt now because his wife and their mother got in a boating accident and ended up in a coma, leaving oft absentee father Matt to take care of the kids by himself. He struggles with disciplining Scottie and Alexandra is incredibly passive-aggressive towards him, and all of this on top of the decision he has to make about the land really starts to wear old Matt down.
So it doesn’t help that he finds out that his loving wife, who is laid up in a coma, was recently cheating on him. Just when it couldn’t get any worse for Matt, it does, and he embarks on a mission to find out who the guy is and how they met and so on and so forth, presumably for some sort of closure and understanding, and probably because it’s one of the few things he could really control in that time, since he couldn’t control his daughters or his cousins or his wife’s recovery. And all of this craziness happens to him pretty early on in the story, and the way everything gets tangles and intertwined is pretty incredible and in many ways true to life, both in the connections and in the reactions of the people in the story. Not everything is oppressive and intense, there is humor that is inevitable in many of these situations and it comes through great and really balances out the drama in an organic and streamlined way.
And the Hawaiian setting goes a long way to enhancing this story, as the culture and history of the islands are used to tell the story and inform the characters and their decisions. Plus it’s great to see this iconic location used in a rather real way to tell a real story – Hawaii has traffic jams and ghettos and jerks just like anywhere else, it just all happens to be hidden under the shade of the palm trees. Here the camera gets under that shade and shows the places where life still happens, regardless of whether they are close to a beach or not.
The Descendants is a great movie, so well done in so many ways. The acting is strong all around, and the well-balanced tone of comedy and drama makes for a touching movie that doesn’t get sentimental or emotionally manipulative. Instead it is just a strong, well told story filled with interesting characters and compelling yet relatable dilemmas, and that’s why it works so well.
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