Matt King’s family has lived in Hawaii for generations. He and his numerous cousins own 25,000 acres of undeveloped land on Kauai held in trust, which ends seven years hence. It makes sense to most to just sell the land, speculation of which has featured prominently in island gossip – after all, to whom they sell could literally change the face of Kauai.
Matt (George Clooney) is a humble enough guy, choosing to live on his attorney’s salary rather than on the wealth that comes with being a land owner. However, his perfect Hawaiian life is a ruse. His rocky marriage is surviving only because of his wife’s coma. His 17 year old daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) has been sent off to boarding school due to bad behavior but she returns as her mother is declared brain dead to reveal the nature of the fight she’d had with her mother. It’s all a lot more than Matt feels he can handle, especially now that he’s effectively a single parent.
It’s a satisfying movie about the messiness of life, beautifully filmed on location around Hawaii.
In 1992, Hurricane Iniki tore apart many chicken coops on Kauai that housed birds used for cockfighting. By the time The Descendants went into production, there were thousands of feral chickens roaming the island. In the Kauai scenes, chickens are sometimes seen wandering through the shot. Sometimes the crew had to shoo chickens away before a take. Animators observed the same thing when they were working on Moana, which is why her sidekick is a rooster named Heihei.
Matt decides that he’d rather not sell the land. “We didn’t do anything to own this land, it was entrusted to us,” and if they sell it, “something we were supposed to protect is gone.” Perhaps losing his wife reminds him of the importance of a family’s legacy. Certainly the film gently reminds us of the land’s fate should it be sold to a developer: contrasting the rolling green hills, we also see condos and golf courses and resorts-in-progress.
The movie fails to engage in a meaningful way about what it means that Matt’s family – “haole as shit” (a derogatory term for white immigrants) – owns so much Hawaiian land. It’s still not as bad as Aloha, a movie about Hawaii featuring an all-star cast of white people.
Sean and I are in Hawaii and on the lookout for feral chickens as we speak.