The Descendants

The Descendants is a finely acted, finely written movie that is shot in glory on location in Hawaii. I want to live there now. Clooney does a nice job and the story that is told is heartfelt and good.

But I hated this movie. It made me very upset. Let’s start with a preview:

Now some deets:

Released December 9, 2011 (blatant Oscar bait)

Written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash (based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings)

Directed by Alexander Payne

Starring: Shailene Woodley, George Clooney, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, and Beau Bridges

Rated: R

*     *     *     *     *


Matt King (Clooney) has an incredibly wealthy family with roots that go back to the 1860s in Hawaii. His family have been land owners since that time and he is the arbiter of a deal in which the family could sell a massive piece of property they own for a huge payout. Everybody wants to sell and make some money. He has to decide who to sell to.

Matt doesn’t live like an insanely wealthy person. He has a law office and works every day, blissfully disconnected from his marriage and two daughters. But Matt’s wife is critically injured in a boating accident and may very well die, and now Matt has to try to raise two young ladies. The oldest of his daughters is Alexandra, played fabulously by Shailene Woodley, and the younger is Scottie, played by Amara Miller.

The story deals with Matt’s attempts to connect with and relate to his daughters. Alexandra has obviously had some mother and behavioral issues, and Scottie is clearly unsure of how to deal with the tragedy. The story also focuses on Matt’s grief, and later his sense of total betrayal when he finds out his wife was having an affair.

So we have a distant father trying to build a relationship he didn’t have with his kids, deal with grief and anger over his wife, find closure for her affair, and decide what to do with the huge plot of land he is supposed to sell.

Matt is an island and he is the focus. This is the story of a distant man trying to find closeness.


Clooney does great. Shailene Woodley does better. Amara Miller isn’t given enough to do, but she does what she is asked with heart and tenderness. The story that is told is deftly done and characters are given enough extended moments to really develop and show genuine emotion. No shortcuts are taken and the ultimate story is very heartfelt and should be very satisfying.

But something is wrong with this movie, its writers, its main actor, and even most of the reviewers. Sure the movie has a heart, but it’s not accurate. None of these people seem to have any clue what it’s like to have kids. Completely clueless. Either that or they didn’t care to make the relationships between dad and daughters accurate, or something.

The relationship between Matt and his daughters was nice and all, but it was a relationship between actors, not blood. Not years of living together. Not a relationship where father saw daughters born and taking initial steps and trying out new words. That was not there and so the relationships felt hollow and inauthentic and thus the dialogue was forced.

Yes, the interplay between Alex and Matt and Scottie and Matt was fun and interesting and nice. But Matt is bemused, not emotionally affected by Scotty. Matt is concerned, but not terrified for Alex. I don’t care how distant he was before his wife’s accident, Dad is not going to interact with his daughters this way.

So I hated this movie, while simultaneously being impressed at its maturity, light touch, time spent, cinematography, writing, and acting. I’m not sure how the problem in the relationships should have been fixed, but I suspect it’s in both the writing and acting. And since the father/daughter relationships are at the heart of this movie, this issue dings the film’s grade significantly, despite all the other excellence.

Content warnings: Profanity, allusions to sex, teen drinking, some minor violence.

Writing: 4           Acting: 4           Overall: 4

Don’t believe me? See if my review matches those on Rotten Tomatoes.

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About jared

Jared Garrett works as a writer, the manager of a program development department in the corporate world, and an instructional designer. He is a family man with an adorable, fun, and way-too-smart wife, six silly kids, a new house with an overgrown back yard, seven fish, and a bunch of chickens. He has written fiction, user manuals, SEO copy, radio scripts and textbooks and has won first place in the Mayhew writing contest at BYU and received honorable mention in the Writers of the Future contest. He lives at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains and is currently seeking representation for his myriad completed novels.
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