‘The Descendants’

Mother Is Gone

Only last week I finished watching ‘I Am Mita, Your Housekeeper’ and the identical theme pops up on screen in the guise of this movie. In this film, mother suffers a great head injury off screen and ends up in a coma, and awaits death. The rest of it is how the family deals with the aftermath amidst some complications that may be unique to Hawaii.

Anyway, spoiler alert on this one, more than usual. The story is so internal, it’s hard to discuss it without talking about the plotting.

What’s Good About It

The characters are really strong in this script and so there’ a feeling that the actors just have to lean on the words in the script. As American as it is, there is a strange exotica thanks to the story being set in Hawaii, which is oddly evocative in a way that many films about less filmed locations of other parts of America might not be. What it evokes is the constant whiff of other people having a whale of a good time on holidays while the locals toil away with their daily lives in their shadow.

With the constant threat (if you will) of leisure and entertainment lurking everywhere, there is a sense in these characters that they have to fight this vibe all the time.

What’s Bad About It

Some of the settlements in the film are a little too pat. You expect there to be even more fracas but the film closes rather gently. There were more conflicts that could have been brought to bear given the setup. It’s a shame because it seemed really fertile, and in some ways it pales in comparison to what goes on in ‘I Am Mita, Your Housekeeper’.

What’s Interesting About It

The most interesting aspect of the film might be how it grasps at how ephemeral things are. Youth, beauty, love, yearning, all these things get shown as grasping at the ephemeral nature of existence. If a film like ‘Greenberg’ struggles against it, this film actually embraces this grasping as a part of life. It’s not entirely clear why this family is falling apart except it is the mother who let the family drift from her – She let go.

As the film progresses we find that the outwardly expressed angst reflects a deep sense of loyalty and heartfelt pain of betrayal. The elder daughter who starts off looking like the teenager from hell  turns out to be the most loyal family member who stands tall by her father. Her friend Sid, who looks like a casual dufus turns out to have insight into the pain of loss and grieving, and even he brings meaning to a family that is left fractured by the mother’s affair.

The process of picking up the pieces leads to a confrontation of sorts, but there is no deeper meaning to be gleaned.

Evil Father-In-Laws

Robert Forster plays a hard-ass father-in-law who scolds and berates George Clooney’s Matt. He blames the accident in a roundabout non-logic way, on Matt which is not only totally unfair, but misses the essential point that his daughter lacked the important virtue of loyalty in her marriage. This echoes greatly with the ranting father-in-law from ‘I Am Mita, Your Housekeeper’. It seems an inevitable plot-point from the plot device of a mother passing away leaving a family in the lurch, but both these father-in-laws go hard at accusing their sons in laws.

Where this film differs greatly from the Japanese TV drama series is that Matt is dedicated to his family and extended family, to a superhuman degree. We see him holding responsibility not only for his immediate family but for an extended tribe of people who want to sell a large parcel of land. Everybody wants input into the decision, and everybody wants to know what he’s going to do. It turns out he wants to do what is best for the land, because he alone can see that the land and the extended family are part of the same loop. One cannot be without the other. If he sells the land and everybody cashes out, the extended family will disappear as well.

In that light, the irony is deeper when the father-in-law tells Matt what a bad son-in-law he has been. It’s anything but the truth.

The Absent Mother

The other curious mirror is of course how the oedipal story plays out in the absence of mother. As sure as day light, Matt fixates upon the man with whom his wife had an affair. He cannot tear himself away from the mission, because he is moved to find this man and metaphorically kill him. As a result of this adventure, he ends up being closer to his daughters, who are able to be closer to him without the mother.

It’s all very Freudian, but the film makes sense. One of the best scenes in the film is when Matt confronts his friends to get information out of them about his wife’s lover. Matt is rightfully angry, and he will not be deterred by politically correct discourse – he demands the truth. But the truth only comes to him from the man because the man understand the Freudian mission.

I suspect the film is emotionally satisfying because it plays beautifully to such mechanisms in our psyche.


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