movie review of “The Descendants” Nov 25 2011


The Descendants is “the long-awaited next movie from the director of Sideways” according to the mini blurb on the google search. Maybe I am the only one who didn’t see the other movie (I think I was travelling in Asia) but when you live in Honolulu, any movie filmed here is a “must see.” I knew that even if the movie  was trash, I could indulge the petit plaisir of guessing the locations in the film.

The Premise

It’s a family drama set in an exotic location. Matt King is the hero, played by George Clooney. Matt is a hardworking attorney whose ancestors were children of missionaries that married into Hawaiian royalty in 1840 or so, and ended up controlling large swaths of the Aloha State, now under his control. Yes,  this is a colorful fact of Hawaii history,  there are such persons, and not too long ago one of our political candidates was a man with red hair and blue eyes who had a long Hawaiian surname. Quentin Kawananakoa didn’t win the republican nomination for congress, but at the time it was reminder that people like him, or like Matt King, are out there somewhere.

Th trailer doesn’t hide the challenge that must be overcome: There is a family tragedy to deal with, and Matt must make the decision to “pull the plug.” The rest of the movie is about character development and nuance.

Seeing a movie shot in Hawaii, on a Hawaiian screen

You knew they were expecting a crowd when the Kahala eight-plex scheduled it for two screens at staggered time. The seats were full, we got there early which was good because the previews started well before the seven PM showtime. Looking around, it was a noticeably older audience – gray haired couples; groups of three or four women. Not so obviously a “date movie” inasmuch as the teens and twentysomethings were vastly outnumbered. Maybe the younger set were all going to see The Twilight Saga – the next installment of a winning formula. I think the trailer made it obvious that The Descendents was not going to charge up the hormones like a Teen Vampire Movie would do.

Cultural Sensitivity

Any movie that deals with Hawaii has a formidable obstacle to overcome: sensitivity to Native Hawaiian issues. Land stewardship is a political issue, here. They got it right, I think. One of the meta-questions for any such movie I think, whether the location strictly necessary; in this case probably not. The issues of grief and bereavement are universal. Let’s face it, though – would you still want to see this movie if it was set in say, Arkansas?

Manoa – the Valley of Hawaiian Royalty

Next little game: guessing the locations. They never said “Manoa” in the movie, but Manoa is the neighborhood where such a family would live, and it’s where my first apartment was. The interiors of the houses bespoke the style of such a family. The stunning backdrop of the state helped set the mood, and for that matter, the soundtrack of Hawaiian slack key guitar was also quite good.

Pidgin and “Hawaiian Style”

Would the characters “get it right” in terms of the way people who live in Manoa talk and dress? The way they would respond to a given situation? Put this question another way: Is there a particular approach to this set of problems that might show the rest of us how this specific group of people, Hawaiian Kamaaina, would deal with such a situation? Off hand I would say one of the strengths of local culture is the understated dignity and consideration displayed by people here. There is an “Asian-ness” to this town, and this state, which is vastly different that other parts of the country. Don’t be fooled by the laid-back people in Aloha shirts; they can get straight to the point and they can be very direct. I think this movie captured that aspect of life here. To reinforce the perspective, somebody here spent a lot of time learning the soft subtle accents of “local talk,” and even the minor characters were chosen with care. Kim Gennaula for example, is a local TV anchor who plays a bit part. The audience chuckled at Kim’s scene, but she portrayed the dignity and warmth of the locals quite well. The director made a mighty effort to avoid caricature, and I think he succeeded.


The strength of this movie is the portrayal of complex grief and the up-close-and-personal mixture of emotions that play out.  When you say good bye to a person in your life, you have to come to grips with the idea that they were not quite perfect. We watch as this is revealed to Matt King, step by step, and this is the heart of the movie. Matt grows from seeing his own pain, to seeing the pain of every life that is touched, such as that of his daughters and in-laws. Julie Speer, played by Julie Greer, is an innocent bystander to the pain and hurt – there are always innocent bystanders. Julie’s scene with Matt is a shining illumination of the human spirit.  Yes, there are people like Julie Greer out there.  She made me cry. I am a sentimental softy.

Five Tasks of Hospice

Let’s face it, as a nurse I have been to more dying bedsides than average. Don’t ask me for a head count, you would probably be shocked. And so, as in any medical movie, the details of the scene are a make-or-break for me.  It is critical to portray medical details accurately. This movie does not have blood or graphic shocking scenes – even the accident itself is not directly portrayed. And so the interpersonal dramas are critical. I thought this was exceptionally well done.

The Study of Bereavement

It may surprise some readers to know that they study these things in the hospice  movement. The average person has probably heard of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, but there has been more recent work that is also very important.  Dr Ira Byock described the five things that need to be said to any dying person. 1) I forgive you 2) do you forgive me? 3) I love you 4) thank you; and 5) goodbye. I was on the edge of my seat to see how well each character dealt with these imperatives, this checklist of farewell. As each person deals with this, it’s presented beautifully, without preaching. A person who has not been around grieving families might be surprised by the irreverent humor, but in truth, this is how it unfolds and the movie showed this, too. bravo.

Caricature? Or – not?

The best movies will allow the audience to share this kind of experience but also to draw their own conclusions. Grief was handled with great sensitivity, here. I love it when any movie can be kept alive by the discussion in the car or over coffee, afterwards. This one served to spark just that kind of discussion.

In the credits, I was a bit surprised to see that there were a half-dozen stunt men on this film. There had not been any kind of stunt, that I could see.

In summary, it was a great little movie.


1 Comment

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One response to “movie review of “The Descendants” Nov 25 2011

  1. Pingback: Movie Review of "The Descendents" from Honolulu | Hot Entertainment News

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