Matt King, played by George Clooney, is not that different from a lot of men. He’s a workaholic, successful as a property attorney, and puts duty to the job before family. He has a wife, Elizabeth, played by Patricia Hastie. And 2 daughters, Scottie age 10, played by Amara Miller. And Alexandra age 17, played by Shailene Woodley. He’s never home and leaves the responsibility of home life to his wife. Matt makes the money and Elizabeth takes care of everything else.
Matt differs from a lot of men in that he’s a descendant of Hawaiian royalty, which includes a hefty inheritance of Hawaiian land. The sale of the land over the years has left him and his cousins very well off. He is sole trustee of the family’s last parcel - 25,000 acres of Hawaiian paradise. Because of legal issues with the trust, the land should be sold. The potential buyer of the land plans to turn it into resorts, condos and other commercial endeavors. He and his cousins stand to make a half billion dollars to split amongst them when the sale goes through. The decision to sell is in Matt’s control. Unlike Matt, his cousins have squandered most of their inheritance and are pressuring Matt to close the deal.
He also differs from other men because his life forever changes when his wife ends up in a coma after a boating accident. Suddenly he is facing the reality that he knows nothing about the life she was leading before her accident, and has no clue how to deal with his daughters.
After an incident where Scottie acts inappropriately at her school, he admits he hasn't really taken care of her since she was 3. He describes himself as the back up parent, the understudy. When he finds out that she's been bullying a classmate, he feels it must be out of character for her. But Matt doesn't really know if Scottie is acting up because her mother is seriously ill, or because that is just her personality.
Daughter Alex confounds her father even more, spending too much time with older men, doing drugs and defying authority. When Matt picks her up at boarding school so she can help with Scottie, he is perplexed by how angry she is with her mother. Alex reveals that her anger comes from finding out something about her mother that Elizabeth was trying to keep secret. He later finds out that their mutual friends were also keeping the same secret. He feels betrayed and hurt, but also unprepared at how out of his control his life has become.
His family’s tragedy is a catalyst that sets in motion events and revelations that not only force him to examine his marriage and his relationship with his daughters, but also the sale of the land. It starts him on a journey that helps him redefine what’s important to him.
The power of this movie is in its subtlety achieved with a well-written script and superb acting. It’s complex and thought provoking. It succeeds without relying on sensationalism to keep our interest. Jealousy and anger run high in this film, but nobody is stabbed or shot in a fit of rage. We hear about the accident that leaves Elizabeth comatose, but we don't see it. There are no flashbacks to past events. Real time character interactions and events tell the story. And do so successfully. The lush Hawaiian mountains and greenery, and the native Hawaiian music should have equal billing with the cast. Both are outstanding.
Some of the reviewers feel that the ending doesn’t live up to the quality of the rest of the film. That it’s hastily added on and poorly done. I disagree. It’s a perfect ending to the film.
In her hospital room, Elizabeth is covered with an old yellow and white quilt. It appears about halfway through the film after a visit from her mother and father. At the same time, personal items from her childhood also appear, such as a diploma, pictures of her as a child, and a necklace.
The final scene of the film starts with Scottie at home, on a couch, watching tv and cuddled up under the same quilt that her mother had in the hospital. Then Matt joins her with bowls of ice cream to share, and he covers up under the quilt as well. Alex enters, joins them on the couch under the quilt, and shares in some of the ice cream. As with the rest of the film, it’s subtle, but effective and it brings the film to its conclusion.
The Descendants received considerable critical acclaim. It was nominated for multiple Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for George Clooney. Each would have been well-deserved. It did win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. It also was awarded 2 Golden Globe awards, Best Picture and George Clooney for Best Actor. And rightly so. One of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.