The death of a mother is the first sorrow wept without her

The Descendants Hawaii is a vacation spot. To most of us, it’s not a place where people live and certainly not where anyone dies. My wife even remarked during the opening minutes of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants that it was strange to see office buildings through Matt King’s (George Clooney) own office window. “I didn’t know they had those there!” This, surely, cannot be Hawaii? But it is, and people do die there.

Matt King is, as a matter of fact, waiting for his wife to die after she has slipped into a coma caused by a jet skiing head injury. He has been told that there is nothing anyone can do now. His job is to tell everyone else, starting with his two daughters. The youngest, Scottie (Amara Miller), is already acting out in school, and her older sister Alex (Shailene Woodley) seems to have been her mentor. To make matters worse, Matt’s family has been locked in a fierce debate about how best to unload a plot of land handed down to them by their royal Hawaiian ancestors, and he gets to make the final call. Did I mention that The Descendants is also funny? It is. Not laugh out loud funny, no, but it does contain the kind of humor one uses to relieve impossible stress. In short, it is always funny right when it needs to be.

Like when Alex drops a bombshell on Matt’s bombshell, informing him that the reason she and her mother had not been speaking before the accident was because Alex had discovered her mother was having an affair. Okay, that’s not so funny. But the sight of Matt slipping on his man-dals and running down the street to confront his wife’s best friend about the affair sure is. He gets the other man’s name and the subsequent search provides a fine opportunity for Alex and Matt to bond. (Teenage girls love drama, don’t they?)

There are some nice moments involving peripheral characters. Matt’s father-in-law, for example, uses his daughter’s impending death as an excuse to unload all of the disappointing thoughts he has ever had about his son-in-law. And when his wife’s lover’s wife (wha?) shows up at the hospital Matt is sympathetic. None of this is really about him anyway. The only real fly in the ointment is a friend Alex drags along for the trip. Sure, they explain his presence well enough, but I can’t help but feel that the film wouldn’t have missed him.

And what of Matt’s struggle over his family’s decision to unload their land? Land that, in his own words, they did “nothing to earn?” It appears to comes not only from his desire to save a place he has enjoyed with his own immediate family, but from a deep respect for his family’s history. They say that death is for the living. They say that it can put things into perspective. I think that Matt and his daughters would most certainly agree.

The Descendants is nominated for Best Picture, Best actor in a leading role (George Clooney), Directing (Alexander Payne), Film Editing (Kevin Tent) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash)

Kevin Mattison is co-editor of The Idler, as well as being an occassional film review contributor for Real Detroit Weekly, a filmmaker and videographer. You can follow him on Twitter at @kmmattison.

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