The delicate balance of honored ‘Descendants’

“The Descendants” is a lovely meditation about how living in a paradise like Hawaii doesn’t preclude having family problems and, how being white, privileged and rich brings bigger and more complicated dilemmas. “The Descendants” is currently playing at the Arclight Pasadena.

George Clooney just won Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture Drama and Best Motion Picture as well. We went on to see just before the award was announced.

Ian, my husband, was born and raised in Oahu, Hawaii. His mother was originally born in Maui. So much separates the kotonks from the kanakas. Although, I was the first notice the inclusion of a Hawaiian celebrity.

For myself, I endured the painful slow death of my terminally ill father. My father’s youngest brother lives in Oahu. There was much that both of us could relate to in this sensitive movie.

At the center, is a woman, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie). We don’t know much about her except she was in a boating accident and is now in a coma. Seeing her there is unpleasant, but this isn’t a movie about the pleasant part of paradise.

Her husband, Matt King (George Clooney), has always been the back up parent and  working as an attorney, living off of his own earnings and not his inheritance, he has drifted away from his wife and his daughters. His family is gathering to vote one how 25,000 acres of pristine Kaua’i land will be sold and developed, but the decision rests with Matt as the sole surviving trustee.

That family problem is white noise in the background. We hear Matt swearing in his mind that he will become a better father, a better husband. He will spend more money on his wife and take her wherever she wants, when she wakes up. The money from the deal will make him rich and he will finally begin to spend his inheritance. But then the bad news drops; the doctor (Milt Kogan) tells Matt, she will not wake up. Her will asks that she be taken off life supports in the next few days, days that Matt must gather the people she loved the best to say good-bye.

His daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is already acting up in school and it’s a credit to the casting director that Miller isn’t overly precocious. She runs awkwardly and stands in a way that isn’t posed and seems totally real. Matt attempts to deal with Scottie’s actions, but he’s far from smooth and he needs help.

Matt also needs to gather his elder daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) from the Big Island where she is boarding at a school–Hawaii Pacific Institute–for what my husband describes as kids who screwed up (probably based on Hawaii Baptist Academy or Hawaii Prep Academy) and couldn’t make it at the main private schools, Punahou or Iolani, on Oahu. Alex is a troubled kid even among troubled kids–out of her dorm room past curfew and drunk on the day her father comes to pick her up. Alex drops a bombshell at home; last Christmas Alex confronted her mother about the affair Elizabeth was having. At first we suspect the man, Troy,  who was with her at the time of the accident as does Matt. Troy is the tall, blonde athletic kind of guy one could easily stray for and he’s played by a former Vogue and big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton (Hamilton’s surfing has been chronicled in the documentary “Riding Giants”).  Forget the tennis instructor; here we have the surfer boy of vacationing haole women’s dreams.

Soon Matt learns that his best friends knew, not only about the affair, but also about who was her lover. Told by his wife’s best friend that his wife meant to divorce him for this man, Brian Speer, a real estate agent (Matthew Lillard), Matt decides to find him in order to allow Speer to say farewell to this woman he loved.

There are, of course, other people Matt must tell and he takes Scottie, Alex and Alex’s slacker friend Sid (Nick Krause) along. Here is where we begin to suspect that Elizabeth wasn’t such a good parent and perhaps not even a nice person. Her father, Scott Thorson (Robert Forster), Matt’s father-in-law is an angry man. He has nothing good to say about Matt and blames him for his daughter’s accident. Yet Scott is living his own tragedy. His wife, Alice (Barbara L. Southern), is suffering from dementia and must be introduced to her granddaughters. Her muddled mind mixes up Queen’s hospital and Elizabeth for going to meet Queen Elizabeth.

As Matt and Alex and even Sid track down Brian, there’s a sense of a conspiracy. Alex is forced to grow up and in some ways become a parent figure, stepping in to help with her sister. While Matt gets to confront his wife’s lover, he also finds his own family and the depth of his own love for his wife.

Ian was bothered by the dominance of white people in the movie whereas in Hawaii they actually are only 25 percent of the population with 39 percent Asian and 10 percent Native Hawaiian. He also thinks George Clooney needs to learn how to run in sandals. I thought the running in itself was funny. Still the movie felt authentic to him including the Hawaiian music sound track.

Saying goodbye to a parent is never easy. There’s denial and anger and even a feeling of betrayal. More than a mother, particularly a risk-taking mother, the girls that age need a father and their father has finally come home to them.

Director Alexander Payne who also co-wrote the script (based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ book) never forces the issues or insights. He allows things to gently unwind like long hair in a gentle ocean breeze. His sensitive direction allows a balanced juxtaposition between an enraged husband confronting his wife’s lover and the overly sweet superficial face of polite conversation with the unsuspecting wife of that lover, or the blistering outrage of an angry father and tenderly patient husband and the simplistic unfiltered statement of an emotionally dense youth.

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