The Descendants, adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, shows that people can always surprise us, no matter how well we think we know them. It tells the story Matt King (George Clooney), who may live in Hawaii but doesn’t live in paradise. His wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), lies in a coma in a Honolulu hospital following a boating accident; only after finding out that she will never reawaken, only after deciding to take her off life support, does he finally learn that she had been cheating on him. He found out from, of all people, his seventeen-year-old daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who fought with her mother after catching her with another man. Even now, as she lies in a hospital bed with her mouth agape and an air tube sticking out of her throat, Alexandra remains angry and rebellious – a boarding school party girl who’s first seen as a belligerent drunk.
The details of the affair are for the most part not discussed. The best we get is a close friend telling Matt that Elizabeth was unhappy in the marriage. We, of course, will never know what share of the blame she deserves. It is clear, however, that Matt has been distant from his family. If he were engaged, it wouldn’t be a matter of missing the telltale signs of an affair, which are very hard to hide; it would be a matter of her not wanting to cheat on him at all. He’s a lawyer by trade, and a successful one at that. Despite this, he isn’t one to let himself or his family spend money recklessly. According to his opening narration, Elizabeth considered this stinginess. He considers it the best piece of advice his father gave him: Give them enough money to do something, but not so much that they do nothing.
He never had to be so actively involved in the life of the younger daughter, ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), who seems understandably confused by it all. He was always the backup parent, the understudy. Now that Elizabeth is dying, he has no choice. Although his primary reason for retrieving Alexandra from boarding school was to give her the chance to say goodbye to her mother, there’s no escaping the fact that he also wanted help raising Scottie. He even tells her at one point that he has no idea what to do. I was torn between admiring his honesty and wondering why he got married and had children in the first place. I would not classify him as a workaholic, but he’s definitely not a family man. Even during the periods where he gets along with his children, it’s obvious that the connection is weak.
Matt has more on his plate than the impending death of his wife. He’s the trustee of his family’s ancestral lands, a beautiful patch of virgin soil where Elizabeth and Alexandra used to go camping. He’s under pressure to sell the land, which will be developed into a luxury resort and commercial complex. Obviously, Hawaii doesn’t have enough of those already. It’s a family affair, with most of those involved being his cousins. The most prominent is Hugh (Beau Bridges), with the long, windblown hair and a vocabulary partially influenced by surfer dudes. They’re all the descendants of a Hawaiian princess and a missionary, who married sometime in the nineteenth century. Many of them feel entitled and would like Matt to make the sale. The select few that don’t are pretty much in line with the entire population of Hawaii.
Eventually, Matt learns the name of Elizabeth’s lover and decides to confront him – and allow him the opportunity to say goodbye to Elizabeth. So begins a cross-island search for a realtor named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), who’s wife, Julie (Judy Greer), could not be sweeter. Along for the trip are Scottie, Alexandra, and Alexandra’s friend, Sid (Nick Krause). Sid has the appearance of an idiotic beach bum, and indeed, he possesses the uncanny ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Case in point: He’s punched by Elizabeth’s perpetually angry father (Robert Forster), who can never address Matt or Alexandra without resorting to personal attacks. That being said, Sid understands the situation better than Matt gives him credit for.
One of the strengths of The Descendants is that it doesn’t have an emotional arc. It runs the gamut from solemn to hilarious to heartbreaking to inspirational, much like life itself during times of stress and uncertainty. The best scenes all take place in Elizabeth’s hospital room, where various characters have one-sided conversations of surprising depth and power. What they and the rest of the film so expertly demonstrate is something so true and yet so often glossed over in the movies: People are imperfect and complex. When tragedy fractures a family, there will inevitably be a long and difficult process of healing. There is no one way to go about it, and there certainly isn’t a fixed time for everything to work itself out. There’s no guarantee that anything will work out at all. But if there’s love somewhere within, perhaps it’s possible for life to go on.