The Descendants is a film with the kind of story some find difficult to watch because it stirs up painful memories. Five years ago my wife was diagnosed with a recurrence of a cancer that had been held at bay for more than 11 years. Within 8 weeks of the diagnosis she died with great dignity. She made use of the Dutch law on assisted suicide and so she died probably a couple of weeks ahead of the time she would have without the assistance she requested and received from her doctors. My two children where left with me, their step father. We decided that the three of us would carry on as best we could. After five years it can be said that "as best we could" has turned out well. But there were truly shaky beginnings, mainly due to my difficulties in accepting my new reality; but we stuck together and got there eventually.
In The Descendants, Matt King (George Clooney) is the father of two teenage girls. Elizabeth, his wife is lying in a coma after a boating accident. She has left a living will to switch off her life support machine, if it becomes clear that there is no chance of recovery. In the beginning, there is still slim hope that she might recover, but a dawning certainty that she won't. Matt has to step into the role of a father which he has always neglected and increasingly, he'll have to perform traditionally motherly duties as well. He now finds out from his daughter Alexandra that his wife was in an extramarital relationship shortly before her accident. His wife's best friend lets him know that Elizabeth was planning to leave him. Father and daughter are shocked by this revelation and decide to find and confront Elizabeth's lover.
In his professional life, Matt King is lawyer who has to deal with some important business. He and his cousins hail from a Hawaiian princess and Matt administers a trust on behalf of all her descendants. He has the final say of what to do with the beautiful valuable piece of land on the island of O'ahu, which the trust owns. The descendants plan to sell it to a land-developer who will turn it into a high class tourist resort. This will make Matt and his cousins, who are mostly keen on the deal, very rich; but how to weigh his and their material interest against what the other people living on on the Island want?
Ideally the different strands of the story should make the whole more than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, though, they overload the story. The result is that the drama of coping with the loss of a mother and a life partner ends up being overshadowed by the extramarital affair and the resolution of the trust. Perhaps the characters seek refuge in these aspects because the core drama of their lives is just to painful to deal with without those distractions.
The strongest scenes of the film are when the tension between Matt and his father-in-law, Scott Thorson (Robert Forster) come to the fore. Scott is the most visibly grief stricken person in Elizabeth's surrounding and blames Matt's reluctant attitude to make use of his inheritance to have contributed to Elizabeth's accident. Between him and Matt there is a rawness and a realization that as grandfather and father of Elizabeth's daughters, they will have to go on coping with each other even though there is no love lost between them. Shailene Woodley's performance as the elder daughter, Alexandra, marks her out as a talented young actress with a promising future career.
Films involving George Clooney always have wit and quality to commend them. That is the case here too, but not enough. Therefore, this is one of Clooney's weaker films with a rather flat acting performance. As a card-carrying liberal, liberal in the American usage of the word that is, he will no doubt been glad for this opportunity to convey some not so subtle political messages too, such as: Inheriting a choice piece of Hawaiian real estate, when you have green leanings, is a heavy responsibility. Even if real estate speculation can make you rich, putting the beautiful unspoilt landscape before profits is the right thing to do and will make you happier than the money you'll get selling it. People in Hawaii, although they wear loud shirts, walk on sandals and live in a paradisical island, have big troubles too. They are just as human, nice and, indeed, American as people in Atlanta or any where else on the American mainland. President Obama, of course, was born on Hawaii. So this message carries political weight, particularly in a year of US presidential elections.