“What’s wrong with you?”, Matt (George Clooney) asks his ten-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller). He’s been called to her school, because she’s brought pictures of her mother to class, her mother who’s lying in a Honolulu hospital in a coma. Scottie’s teacher called Matt to let him know the photos are upsetting her classmates. She has an explanation: “I’m a photographer.” Matt sighs as they walk, on their way to meet with the teacher. “Your mother’s sick,” he essays. “She’s not art. What’s going on in your mind?”
What’s going on in Scottie’s mind has to do with the central dilemma of The Descendants. As she tries to sort out the specter of her mother now, inert and silent following a water-skiing accident, the little girl faces questions she can’t begin to articulate. For most of the movie, Scottie isn’t aware that, in fact, her mother, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), is dying, once she’s removed from life support according to her living will. Matt does know, as does Scottie’s older sister Alex (Shailene Woodley), pulled out of boarding school in order to be with her family. As Scottie observes the adults around her, all slightly different than they were before, she’s trying to understand how her own life is changed too.
That life has so far been privileged, in part because her father’s a successful lawyer and in part because he and his cousins have inherited 25,000 acres of land in Kauai. As he contemplates Elizabeth slipping away, Matt is also wrapped up in another transition, as he’s the executor for a real estate deal that promises to make everyone in the family even wealthier. They’re descended from a Hawaiian queen, whose photographs adorn Matt’s home office walls, alongside her children and grandchildren. A self-admitted workaholic, Matt sees himself as something of a caretaker for the land and its legacy: the more he’s pressed by his relatives to sell off to developers — whose visions of hotels and tourists loom ominously over the current magnificent landscape — the more he’s disinclined to make the deal. All this as he’s becoming something other than the “backup parent” to his daughters.
The “descendants” of the title in Alexander Payne’s ‘s new movie are thus multiple and variously at odds. As much as Matt ideally wants to preserve the meaning and majesty of the land, he has other concerns too, including what he’s passing on to Alex and Scottie, as he’s increasingly aware of his own mortality, of the transience of the future and the effects of the past. As Scottie preserves her mother in photographs, and sees her art as a way to order or make sense of her present, Matt comes to see his role in making order, not only as a lawyer or executor, but more crucially as a father.
On one level, Matt’s gradual realization is sentimental and obvious. When he learns that Elizabeth has been cheating on him, he’s furious and hurt. The knowledge doesn’t change his marriage so much as it changes his perception of it, and of himself. The film takes his reassessment another step: as he’s grappling with his most fundamental relationships, with his daughters and wife, certainly, he also re-visits the history that has granted him an essentially complicated identity in Hawaii, not quite visibly native and not quite colonialist. To its credit, the film doesn’t untangle these relationships, but rather, makes them increasingly interlocked.
For one thing, Matt has to perform his role as (rather abject) son-in-law in front of his daughters, who come to wonder aloud at the tensions between the two men. Elizabeth’s angry father Scott (Robert Forster) is outspoken regarding what he sees as Matt’s failings as a husband, namely, that he’s remote and distracted, never good enough for her. He makes the point more than once, that Matt didn’t buy her the boat she always wanted, and so, in Scott’s surmising, left her to water-ski off an inferior boat, thus causing her loss. Matt, for his part, seems resigned to this disappointment, apparently voiced for decades, and mostly just keeps his head down in Scott’s presence.
It’s not hard to see how Scott’s anger is shaped by the loss of his own wife, the lovely Alice (called “Tutu” by her granddaughters, played by Barbara L. Southern), currently afflicted with Alzheimer’s and so, unable to comprehend her daughter’s tragedy, or even to recognize her family. When Tutu is thrilled to learn she’ll soon be visiting “Queen Elizabeth,” and starts to wonder what dress she might wear, Scott and Matt exchange looks, briefly sharing a bit of grief and also, exasperation — at everything. At this point, the camera cuts to Alex’s friend Sid (Nick Krause), a generally goofy kid who appears to miss every nuance in every conversation. He’s giggling at Tutu, his own inappropriateness lost on her but refocusing the rest of the family’s outrage.
Sid serves several functions in the film, not least being comic relief, as he repeatedly speaks out of turn or misunderstands situations (“Your friend is retarded, you know that,” he tells Alex). He also provides Scott with an odd confidant, of sorts, as he’s Alex’s peer (and so might help explain her fierce rebellion to her father) and also, almost, another man amid the girls. As much as Matt treats his daughters with respect and a cautious sort of reverence, he’s now unable to work through his vexed relationship with Elizabeth, indicated when he tells her comatose form that, now, finally, he’s ready to talk, as she must have asked him to do. Now, he’s ready to tell her what he’s feeling, namely, that she’s a “goddamn liar.” Alone in her hospital room with her, Matt yells, “The idea in marriage is to make your partner’s way in life a little bit easier. You’re making it harder.”
This is exactly what loss is about. Loss through cheating, dying, and disease, loss as disorder and cost. And so, what’s going on in Scottie’s mind is loss, more particularly, finding ways to share it, to survive it, ways to remember and mourn and move on, too. As The Descendants reveals these efforts, it is at once painful and discerning, awkward and resourceful.