The Descendants is a film in which numerous difficult, draining emotions are explored. Based on a novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings, it builds its story very carefully, adding layer upon layer of nuance. At its core, the film is about coming to terms with the loss of a loved one. But it’s also about infidelity, parenting, and managing one’s legacy. That last element is where the title comes from, as Matt King (George Clooney) wields all the power as trustee of 25,000 acres of pristine Hawaiian land. He, along with most of his many extended family members, is planning to sign away the rights, handed down by their ancestors, to developers. The family stands to make millions from the deal.
But Matt has other more pressing concerns. At the outset of the film, we learn that his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is in a coma as a result of a boating accident. The situation is dire. In fact, it’s hopeless. This leads Matt to retrieve his teenage daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), from her boarding school. His 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) lives with him already, but Alex was sent away after she developed some substance and behavioral problems. Matt and his two daughters need to begin preparing for the inevitable. Despite the heaviness of the situation, which is treated with realistic tenderness, director and co-screenwriter Alexander Payne keeps the tone impressively light.
If Matt didn’t already have enough on his plate, Alex drops a monster bombshell on him that sets the film’s plot in motion. This arguably brings us to mild spoiler territory. This plot element was utilized heavily in the film’s promotional campaign, but it somehow flew under my radar prior to seeing it. I think it was more effective not knowing this information beforehand. So if you don’t know much about the movie already, proceed with caution. It turns out that up until her boating accident, Matt’s wife was having an affair that had become pretty serious. Although Alex knew about it, Matt was oblivious. It’s a unique way to deal with the issue of infidelity, as Matt has to tread very delicately since he doesn’t want to disrespect his dying wife. Nor does he want to vilify her in the minds of his children, which is already how Alex has come to view her. But he finds himself driven to meet the man who captured his wife’s heart.