Making the Grades
Matt King’s (George Clooney) life may look like paradise. The busy lawyer living in Hawaii is married to a beautiful woman, the father of two daughters, a descendant of a prominent family that owns billions of dollars worth of land, and the controlling trustee of the wealthy estate. Perhaps there was a time when Matt may have thought so too. But it is not today.
Today is the twenty-third one he has spent sitting by his unconscious wife (Patricia Hastie), wondering if she will ever recover from the damaging head injury she sustained during a boating accident. Pulled away from the office and forced to face the possibility of life without her, Matt wonders what he will do. He is especially concerned about his children: one a head-strong, foul-mouthed teen (Shailene Woodley) with a partying problem, the other (Amara Miller) a precocious ten-year-old that enjoys shocking her peers with sexual banter and photos she has taken of her ailing mother.
Although all this seems bad, things are about to get worse. First, Matt is informed that Elizabeth will never wake up, and because of her living will the doctors have a legal obligation to remove her from life support. Second, his relatives (one played by Beau Bridges) are anxious for him to get back to work settling a real estate deal that will make them all multi-millionaires. And finally, his oldest daughter Alex spitefully confesses to knowing her mom was having an affair.
This last item is news for Matt, whose grief is suddenly swallowed up in an obsession to find his wife’s lover and… well, he’s not sure. All he knows is he can’t ask Elizabeth about it and any call to action seems better than waiting by her hospital bed.
This dysfunctional family drama, based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, offers some interesting character studies: A methodical man who loses all control of his life, a rebellious adolescent landed with grown-up responsibilities, a neglected child demanding attention, a tag-along teen (Nick Krause) who may not be as dumb as he appears, and a script that pivots around a woman who never utters a word. Setting the story on sun sundrenched beaches also makes a great juxtaposition for the sorrow each is experiencing. Yet, what do they learn? What does the audience learn from them?
While answers may not be in abundance, sexual expletives, crude comments and references to substance abuse are. The prevalent discussions of death and adultery don’t make the film a vacation destination either. Yet older viewers, who are willing to overlook the language, may find amidst this pensive feast some serious food for thought.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Descendants.
In order to protect his children from being spoiled or feeling entitled, Matt lives by the philosophy, “You give your children enough money to do something, but not enough to do nothing.” How do you feel about this idea? Does this plan protect his girls the way he hoped? Why or why not?
Why is Matt afraid to tell his younger daughter the truth about her mother’s condition? How fair is it for him to place so much responsibility on his older child? Why do you think Alex invites her friend Sid to be part of their grieving process?
As Matt tries to come to terms with Elizabeth’s choices, what petty things does he do? When is he noble? What does he learn about himself, his wife and his family as he goes through this process? How does he view these relationships by the end of the film?
How does the character of Elizabeth effect every moment of the story even though she never speaks a word? What things in your life might exert that kind of influence, even if they are silent?