‘The Descendants’ a perfect film of life’s imperfections

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By Sarah Carter, Contributor

Directed by Omaha native Alexander Payne, “The Descendants” is about Hawaiian real estate lawyer Matt King (George Clooney), a struggling parent who must confront his family’s issues.

“The Descendants,” based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, begins as Matt’s wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), is injured in a boating accident and left in a coma. Workaholic Matt has always been the “backup parent,” but now he must learn how to be the primary authority for his two daughters, Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley).

Scottie, a rambunctious 10-year-old, seems to be a handful for Matt, and when he learns that his wife’s condition is only worsening, he brings 17-year-old Alex home from boarding school to help out. In typical teenage fashion, Alex is angry at the world and, according to her father, has let boys and drugs affect her attitude. Alex is particularly angry at her mother, and when Matt tells her to drop it and grow up, Alex reveals that the argument was caused by Elizabeth cheating on Matt.

Matt, Alex, Scottie and Alex’s friend, Sid (Nick Krause), embark to confront the other man and let him know about Elizabeth’s condition. All the while, the family must readjust to a new dynamic. Matt must learn to live with and understand his daughters, rather than follow Sid’s suggestion of trading them in for sons.

To add to his problems, Matt, the sole trustee to his family’s inheritance, needs to decide whether to sell 25,000 pristine acres of pure Hawaiian land on the island of Kauai. The trust dissolves in seven years, so a decision must be made. Some cousins believe it should stay untouched, while others want to sell and earn millions in the process. Either way, the decision not only affects his family, but also local residents on the island.

Matt and his daughters find a way to make the best of a bad situation, growing closer as a family all the while. Life hurts, “but we’re going to make it out okay.”

“The Descendants” thrives on the realistic, subtle influences of Payne’s directing and Clooney’s performance. The characters do not just grow within the film in the usual way. They portray human imperfection and the beauty and struggles of life with sincerity and grace.

When watching “The Descendants,” one could think of the ethical and legal components of this film. When Matt learns that his wife cheated on him, he must choose how to respond and whether or not to follow his own ethical code. Does he allow his reaction to affect how he will care for his wife while she is in a coma? Should he confront the man involved in his wife’s affair? And if so, can he trust himself to not cross a line and do something stupid or harmful or that he will regret? Can he forgive his wife for her infidelity? Do you tarnish the memory of a daughter, mother and friend?

Legally, if you were incapacitated in a hospital, who would you trust to make the medical decisions in your stead? Would you give someone else the opportunity to choose if and when you die, or would you choose your own path before the situation arises? Although we all hope that we will never be in this position, we must all prepare for it. Discuss with a family member, spouse or lawyer your personal beliefs and wishes. It is best that your preferences are documented and accessible to others should anything arise.

“The Descendants,” rated R, is currently playing at Film Stream’s Ruth Sokolof Theater in downtown Omaha.

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