A New Normal

No one gets out of paradise unscathed. That’s what Matt King says as The Descendants, a drama set in Hawaii, begins.

Matt (George Clooney), a lawyer and descendant of a mixed marriage between a missionary and Hawaiian royalty, knows what he’s talking about.

His wife, Elizabeth, lies in a coma in the hospital. He’s not used to being the primary parent for his two children, 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), who’s 10. Each is a handful of problems.

Matt is also in the middle of the biggest decision of his life. He’s the sole trustee over thousands of acres of pristine land handed down from his ancestors, and there’s pressure from his extended family to sell it for development before it’s forfeited due to Hawaiian laws regarding inheritances.

The Descendants, released in 2011 and available on DVD at the Whitehorse Public Library, is directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways) from an award-winning screenplay he co-wrote with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.

Elizabeth isn’t coming out of her coma, and to comply with her wishes, the time has come to let her go. Even as Matt absorbs the burden of this knowledge, he must resolve more routine problems, such as persuading the precocious Scottie to apologize for mean remarks she made to a school friend. Then he collects Alex from the expensive private school where she seems to be enjoying a misspent youth.

Once the family is back together, Alex has more unwelcome news for Matt —Elizabeth had been having an affair. It’s just one more sign that Matt has been absent from his life, in spirit, if not physically. His response to his heightened awareness is predictable — until it’s not, and ultimately profound.

Along the way, Matt’s bewildered exchanges with his wild daughters and Alex’s unflappable friend Sid (Nick Krause), are often very funny. The film generously brings in other odd characters of the Kings’ world, such as Matt’s cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), a deceptively laidback slacker with a keen interest in the business of land, and Elizabeth’s father (Robert Forster), who poignantly maintains a long-held resentment of Matt on his daughter’s behalf.

The beauty of the setting and a gentle acoustic Hawaiian soundtrack infuse The Descendants with a slightly exotic atmosphere, while Alexander Payne’s appreciation for unconventional relationships and the gifted ensemble cast create an unsentimental, but emotionally authentic, film.

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