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Hawaiian Paradise is Not Immune To Family Dysfunction in The Descendants

There’s something intriguing about the way families work. One family may have similarities to another, but no one is exactly the same. Not to mention the individuals in any given family. Some are so different it’s a wonder they’re related, whereas some are so alike two people could be one. Some members even fall somewhere in the middle. It’s just a matter of the family structure and the individuals themselves.

The Descendants is a 2011 dramedy that follows Matt King (George Clooney) and his two daughters Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) in Hawaii. The three are facing the impending death of Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), the girls’ mother and Matt’s wife, following a tragic boating accident. Not only must they face losing Elizabeth, but they have to come to terms with the fact that Elizabeth was having an affair. As if that weren’t enough, Matt is faced with an important decision regarding land his family owns in Kauai. While his family pressures him to sell and make bank, Matt isn’t so sure that selling is the right thing to do. Complications appear left and right for the Kings, especially Matt, but they all learn a little something from their experiences.

Matt once describes his family as an archipelago, as they “are all part of the same whole, but still separate and alone, and always drifting slowly apart.” Perhaps this is how the three of them start out, but it’s not necessarily the ending note. Family dysfunction is a minefield. You never know what’s next. The thing is, if all parties are willing, there’s a way to make it through said minefield without getting yourself blown up in the process.

Matt & Elizabeth

One of the biggest examples of dysfunction is that between husband and wife. Matt narrates from time to time in the film, and in the beginning, he discusses how in a way he and his wife hadn’t really spoken in months. Yet, he’s ready and willing to change all that and be a better husband and father. He pleads with her to wake up. He wants to take her on a trip around the world, just them, and go back to the way they used to be. A longing for the past doesn’t necessarily make for a promising future, and unfortunately, it takes a shattering break in reality for Matt to see the lie he’d been telling himself for quite some time.

Matt talks to his dying wife in her hospital bed

He and Elizabeth were obviously not communicating. Matt wanted to fix things, but he was too late, even before Elizabeth got into her accident. Elizabeth had been cheating for some time, continuing up until her accident, and apparently was ready to leave Matt and start a new life. She wasn’t even willing to work things out with him. That exemplifies a high level of dysfunction in their relationship.

Even so, Elizabeth had no excuse for cheating on her husband. If she was so lonely and wanted out of her marriage, she should’ve gotten a divorce and moved on. Or, at least, let Matt know what she wanted. Matt is equally to blame for the lack of communication, which was their downfall. Their failure to communicate with one another resulted in all kinds of deceit, lies and betrayal, as well as a wake-up call for Matt, who apparently disconnected from reality at some point and was blind to the truth all along. Having reality shoved into your face, as it is in Matt’s case, is by no means fun, but it’s the perspective he needed to ultimately move on.

Matt makes his peace and says his goodbyes to his wife by the film’s conclusion (after Matt gets some of the anger and hurt off his chest in a separate one-sided conversation with her), which is a good thing because it means he remembers the good things over the bad things. When dealing with death, especially under tragic circumstances, it’s better to let go of anger and any other negative emotions and forgive, or else you live with the poisonous emotions for the rest of your life. He does it for himself, but also for the sake of his daughters, too.

Matt & Alex

Father and daughter are estranged at the film’s beginning. Matt is continuously working and notes that he is the “back-up parent.” He doesn’t know his daughters all that well, but he comes to heavily lean on Alex to help him with his younger daughter Scottie, who’s all over the place, and in aiding him with notifying friends and family of Elizabeth’s impending death.

Matt may not deliver the news that her mother is dying in the most eloquent manner, but Alex nonetheless stands by him. They struggle at first, but strangely find a connection in their mutual mission to track down Elizabeth’s lover, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) and confront him. Alex is the one who reveals to her father the truth of her mother’s affair, and Matt does apologize from time to time for dragging Alex along on his toxic mission of tracking down Brian. But ultimately they are a united front, and they need each other to lean on, especially when confronting Brian is excruciatingly difficult for them.

Alex with her arm on her father Matt's seat in the car looking at him and Matt's head at the side, listening to his daughter in The Descendants

Alex even comes to stand up for her father against her the harsh criticisms of her maternal grandfather, saying that he’s doing an amazing job, all things considering. Alex and Matt come to get to know each other again while tracking down Brian, and Matt exhibits more fatherly tendencies, such as acting protective when Alex and her friend Sid (Nick Krause) get a little too close to one another in the backseat at one point. In a way, Matt and Alex grow up together, taking on big responsibilities but delegating so one doesn’t have to bear all the weight upon their shoulders alone.

Matt may rely upon Alex too much and in some ways is forcing her to grow up too soon, but he does love his daughter. Alex admits to feeling ignored and like no one cares, but it’s a misinterpretation derived from a lack of communication between father and daughter prior to the events of the film that seems to be cleared up somewhat by the end of the movie. Matt’s reliance on Alex in helping him care for Scottie can be a bit much, as it puts Alex in a confusing role between sister and maternal figure with Elizabeth gone. However, he does gradually step up and become more involved in Scottie’s life, taking some of the pressure off Alex.

Unfortunately Elizabeth’s death means Alex and Scottie both have to grow up in their own ways, even if they are still kids. Matt worries about them, and does step up to be there for them in the film, signifying that he’s ready for change. Though his wife is no longer around, it doesn’t mean he can’t change for his children.

Matt & Scottie

Matt is clueless when it comes to his youngest daughter. He clarifies this many times in the film. At first, it seems he recruits Alex to help him with Scottie so he doesn’t have to deal with her directly, but as time goes on, Matt spends more time with Scottie and gets to know her, which morphs into a more secure connection and Matt having a better understanding of his youngest daughter.

George Clooney slightly bending forward his hand in Scottie's hair and Scottie standing before him looking down with the ocean in the background

It seems that Matt was afraid to try, but once he allowed himself to do so, things turned out for the better for him and Scottie. He’s unaware and uncertain of his capabilities as a parent, which is clear in the awkward manner he portrays as he takes Scottie to apologize to a fellow classmate for bullying her, among other such instances. Matt plays things by ear, and may not necessarily call out his young daughter on everything she does that’s wrong, but gradually learns to be a parent again, which means being there for not only Scottie but Alex too. It’s not easy to start from scratch, but it’s better than starting with nothing, and luckily he had Alex there to help him through it. Likewise, Scottie learns to trust her father and see him as an authority figure, coming to respect and rely upon him, which is incredibly important given the loss of her mother.

Alex & Scottie

The King sisters are seven years apart in age, and it’s clear that they have their differences. They don’t always speak to each other in the nicest way, but when it comes down to it, they do care for one another and their father.

Scottie admires her sister, though she doesn’t directly admit to that. Scottie tends to act more grown-up than her ten years, but it seems to be because she’s attempting to emulate her big sister. Her big sister, by comparison, tries to teach Scottie right from wrong in her own way. They often swear, seemingly as a part of their lack of respect for authority, but it’s something they share, and when it comes down to it, Alex will be a big part in helping her father raise her sister. She goes with Scottie to their mother’s hospital room to say goodbye together so Scottie won’t have to do it alone. The two are suffering the same loss, and though Scottie is unaware of her mother’s affair, Alex does, for the most part, keep it to herself so as not to ruin their mother for Scottie.

Scott & Elizabeth

Scott (Robert Forster), Elizabeth’s father, is not the nicest guy. He lives in complete denial, blind to every bad thing Elizabeth has ever done, and blames everyone else for her accident and admonishes others for their behavior towards Elizabeth, declaring that their actions made Elizabeth’s life harder.

Alex Matt Scott and Scott's wife in a living room, Alex has her arms crossed and Scott is pointing at the camera, each character is staring ahead in the picture, three with expressions of shock and Scott with the expression of anger in The Descendants

Scott has the audacity to state that Elizabeth was a devoted and faithful wife, which shows he doesn’t know his daughter at all. Out of the goodness of their hearts, and possibly to avoid a fight, Matt and Alex never let Scott know the truth. It’s undoubtedly tempting, especially considering Scott blames Matt for not giving Elizabeth a more luxurious lifestyle and criticizes Alex for giving her mother such a hard time. Instead of being there for his daughter’s family, he only makes their lives more difficult, but they tolerate Scott because he’s family. Scott should appreciate the family he has left, but takes out his emotions on them, despite the fact that none of what’s happening is their fault. Elizabeth was never the perfect angel that Scott believed her to be, but Alex and Matt leave him to indulge in that fantasy alone, as it seems to give Scott a sense of peace.

Alex & Elizabeth

Alex’s relationship with her mother is strained, to say the least. She was the one to discover her mother with Brian. That had to be emotionally scarring, to witness her mother betray her father. Even more painful is the fact that Alex confronted her mother, and Elizabeth pretended not to know what her daughter was talking about. Elizabeth was childish and selfish and obviously had no respect for her daughter by lying to her when clearly Alex knew what she was talking about. Elizabeth didn’t even have the decency to be honest with her daughter. Where it concerns her husband, her questionable actions and lack of honesty may be warranted for obvious reasons, but why not confide in her daughter, or at least apologize?

Elizabeth was ready to break her family apart for her own selfish desires, and ironically would have been rejected, given that Brian never truly loved her. How could her love for Brian come first before her daughters? How could she be so willing to put them through that?

Not to mention Elizabeth’s fancy for thrill sports. Why was she always putting herself in danger? Was a lack of thrill so important to her that risking her life was deemed necessary in her own mind? She didn’t think about the people she’d be leaving behind, namely her family, and as the story goes, Elizabeth paid for her boating accident with her life. She left plenty of things unfinished and will miss several significant parts of her young daughters’ lives. That, and with the revelation of her affair, she leaves questions unanswered that her family now has to live with—especially for Alex, who fought with her mother and wasn’t speaking to her up until the accident. Sadly, Alex has to live with the fact that she and her mother left things on bad terms, but she’ll take comfort in the fact that she and her mother did love one another, which is what matters in the end.

Matt & His Cousins

Not only is Matt dealing with his wife’s affair and her impending death, but he’s also on the hook for a big decision regarding family land in Kauai. His cousins, who have already long spent their own inheritances, are heavily pressuring him to sell so they can all make big money out of it. Matt has his doubts and stands firm against them. In a time where he’s at his most emotionally vulnerable, he’s still expected to put together a big deal, and when he makes the decision no one likes, he’s put through the wringer. His cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) threatens to sue him, but Matt takes it in stride. Another problem for another day, and besides, he expected as much.

It’s sad that money can break up a family, to the point where lawsuits are potentially instigated, but enough money is like poison to a family. It splits them up and tears them apart if dealt with poorly. Best case scenario, money settles everyone’s differences, at least until the next uproar. The lack of sympathy from his cousins, considering Matt’s going through a rough time as it is, is also quite callous. Compassion and sympathy are needed more than selfishness and impudence, but apparently, Matt’s family only comes together when it’s convenient for them.

The Conclusion

All kinds of family dynamics are in play here, and each contribute to the actions and feelings of each family member. It’s complicated and buried under layers of years’ worth of dysfunction, but that’s the way it goes. Family dysfunction doesn’t just come about; it’s usually rooted somewhere and can carry on into future generations if not appropriately handled. If it carries on, it only gets worse until someone, or multiple someones, ends the cycle.

George Clooney Shailene Woodley with her arms crossed and Amara Miller standing and staring ahead in The Descendants

Matt and his family may have paradise in Hawaii, but that doesn’t mean their home life is perfect. Everyone has their struggles, and in this family’s case, it’s extreme, painful and incredibly catastrophic. Ironically, perhaps tragedy brought about the necessary shift in perspectives and therefore allowed the characters to find a path to their own healing process. Alex and Matt find ways to forgive Elizabeth for her indiscretions, but it’s a scar they’ll always carry, even if they choose to remember the good over the bad. If nothing else, the best thing to come out of losing Elizabeth was Matt, Alex and Scottie growing closer and putting up a united front, being there for one another and having each other to confide in and rely upon. At one point, they do have a pleasant conversation about Elizabeth, with Matt telling his daughters stories about their mother.

Matt’s voice-over at the beginning of the film is a perfect summary of their experience. He references friends on the mainland, who think that because Matt lives in Hawaii, he has paradise and just about everything else he could ever want. He wonders if they’re insane. “Do they think we’re immune to life? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up? Our cancers less fatal? Our heartaches less painful?”

Life strikes no matter where you are. Death, money, family dysfunction, all of it. It’s there whether we like it or not. The Descendants won an Oscar for “Best Adapted Screenplay”, and two Golden Globes. It has earned each of these awards, but it also deserves an accolade in family dysfunction, and how it is portrayed, dealt with, and in some ways, resolved.

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Written by Kacie Lillejord

Kacie is a freelance writer versed in various forms. She loves pop culture, screenwriting, novels, and poetry. She has previously written for The Daily Wildcat, Harness Magazine, Cultured Vultures, and Screen Rant, with 25YL being her newest writing venture.

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