The laughing woman in early middle-age, helming a speedboat, as The Descendants opens, could be a representative image of Hawaii. Turns out she will be the most important character in the story, a potent absence.
In the sardonic tone with which he speaks of his missionary ancestors who bought islands, or married princesses and inherited theirs, Matthew King (George Clooney) tells us his friends in the mainland think Hawaiians are “all just out here drinking mai-tais, shaking our hips, and catching waves” and snorts, “Are they nuts?”
It is this “place of contradiction”, this land whose language they don’t know, that the Kings who have descended from a Princess must reconcile their relationship with. And as lawyer Matt King – the sole trustee of their fund – guides his cousins through the legalities of disposing of vast tracts of inherited land, he must re-evaluate his ties with his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) and his daughters, Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley).
Forced to be a single parent while his wife is comatose, a man who didn’t “blow [his] share of the trust money”, a man who doesn’t want his “daughters growing up spoiled and entitled” and believes in the adage “Give your children enough money to do something, but not enough to do nothing”, must be their friend and minder.
And these daughters are the kind who’ll swear like sailors, drink like fish, and party like Paris. They’ll also bring home idiots like Sid (Nick Krause), who moves Grandpa Thorson (Robert Forster) into punching him in the eye minutes into their acquaintance. They’ll give people the finger, they’ll stuff their bikini tops with sand, and they’ll surf porn.
The Descendants makes us wonder: Do we realise our responsibility towards what is ours only when we’re pushed to it, when we’re tested, when loss draws near? The film's evocativeness lies in its idiosyncrasy. And its heaviest messages are carried through quirky scenes – a calf loitering about on a lawn, a friend spelling out the name of a paramour, a sheepish glance from a father who mumbles, “You act like you don’t respect authority” to a glowering daughter.
How does one safeguard a memory? How does one preserve what’s lost? How does one recast the beginning of a relationship gone sour? How does one channel rage into reconciliation? Whom does one blame for the loss of something, or someone, one treasures?
Those questions, which figure so often in the dynamics of love and trust, which so deeply affect our regard for someone, or something, we’ve taken to be our love, our friend, our pain, our joy, may never before have been asked in such a gossamer-light narrative. The gentle notes of the eclectic musical score may never before have been mixed into a track with so many expletives. And the idea of morality may never before have been stirred through such petty desires.
Verdict: It says something about the story that even a cinema full of people who giggled at the nudity of Greek statues could fall silent for the seconds it takes to hear the wind and waves on an island. It says something about George Clooney that, going in with a tabula rasa as I did, I was startled to discover he had neither written nor directed the film. Don’t miss this one.