In Alexander Payne’s latest film, The Descendants refer to Matt King and his clan of landowning haole Hawaiians about to dispose of their many acres of untouched tropical paradise to developers. They are mostly male, jovial, and ruthless in a relaxed sort of way. Moreover, they don’t take the custodial, ancestral role of descendants too seriously.
If Death is the ancestor then Matt and his daughters form their own clan of descendants. They understand their role as descendants and form the moral core of the film. In the wake of his wife’s death, Matt inherits the responsibility of taking care of his estranged daughters and of cleaning up after death. Alexandra inherits the knowledge of her mother’s unfaithfulness and the responsibility for helping her father with his duties as a widower. Scottie inherits the cheer-leading role, convincing everyone that her comatose mother will wake up.
What happens when you inherit a responsibility you don’t want? The film’s exploration of duty, engagement, constraint, and burden was thorough to the end, though the answer to that question remained satisfyingly unresolved. It is clear, however, by that wonderful gem of an ending, that Matt and his daughters have grown a wiser clan en famille.
With a hilarious Amara Miller and the underrated Judy Greer, who made me laugh and cry all at once.