Tuesday, January 17, 2012

why "The Descendants" meant so much to me

The Descendants won big at the Golden Globes this weekend, taking home the Best Picture, Drama award, as well as Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama award for George Clooney.  In addition, young actress Shailene Woodley was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture award.  All these Hollywood honors are wonderful, but I think the real test of a great film is its ability to touch our hearts, to connect with us in a universal, lasting way.  When we walk away from a film, a validated and more insightful person, we have seen a truly great film.

I saw The Descendants about a week before the Golden Globes and it touched my heart profoundly.  It is the story of Matt King, whose wife has just had a water-skiing accident that leaves her in a coma.  Shortly after this accident, Matt's teenage daughter, Alexandra, reveals to him that his wife has been having an affair.  Matt has hardly been the ideal husband, with little time for his family, but the revelation hits him with shocking impact.  He still loves his wife, despite his poor track record as a husband.  Around this same time, the doctors give Matt the terrible news that his wife is never going to wake up from her coma.  This news is made particularly devastating because Matt knows that now he will never have a time to mend his relationship with his wife; neither will have a chance to make amends.  The central question of the film now becomes: how do you find closure in circumstances that seem to resist any possibility of real closure?  How can you end a relationship forever when there is so much left unsaid and undone? 

I understand this central dilemma.  When my father got cancer, I was in college and what followed was a prolonged, seven-year battle with the disease that would ultimately kill him.  He died two years ago.  My dad was a complicated man.  He loved God above all.  I know he loved me and my brother.  He also could sometimes be stubborn and difficult and carry around baggage from the past.  There were elephants in the room in our relationship.  There were unspoken secrets at time.  I loved my dad very much, but there were some conversations I always wanted to have with him, but could never muster the courage to have. 

We are taught that we ought to wrap everything up with a bow when someone is dying.  We are to have perfect closure, everything clean and neat.  But, for the most part, I don't think death is really like that.  I think that we all end our lives with regrets, despite the slogans that we are trying to live life with none.  There is always the sense of what might have been.  The Descendants merely heightens this reality.  It is a profoundly helpful film for the grieving because it shows us the truth of what grief is like and how we might find a realistic kind of closure so that we might move forward in our lives, never forgetting our loved one, but able to continue living with hope.

Another central theme of The Descendants is appreciating what has been given to us, here and now.  Matt King serves as trustee of a large chunk of land in Hawaii, where his ancestors have dwelt for generations.  He alone may say yay or nay to the upcoming sale and division of this property.  Yes, the sale will make all the descendants a lot of money, but King must grapple with the fact that the inheritance his ancestors have left to him may find its true value not in money, but in the connections and beauty that it provides.  The land is a metaphor for what King still has left in his relationship with his daughters.  In the beginning of the film, he calls himself "the back-up parent."  Just as his relationship with his wife has been wanting, so has his relationship with his two daughters.  But as the three grapple with the hard realities of grief--including their anger, sadness, and finally acceptance--they are drawn closer together.  The false mask of indifference that they have all been wearing is shattered.  The journey to a more authentic relationship is painful, but the bond that they all form through the suffering is quietly hinted at in the closing frames of the film.

The idea that there can be a real healing as we move into the future, a healing which acknowledges the past, which gives it dignity and truth, a healing which is not perfect, but which also gives us permission to move forward...this moved me so much as I watched this film.  I appreciated that the reality of grief in its nothing-like-picture-perfect truth was portrayed so well.  And for the first time in a while, I found myself able to cry about my loss of Dad, connecting to the pain of the death of one loved so well and in such a complicated way.  Finally, this film gave us a beautiful picture of forgiveness, in the final monologue of George Clooney to his coma-ridden, dying wife.  The bringing together of his anger and his love for her in that final speech was masterful. 

I think that over the years, I will watch this film over and over again.  It connects me to the truth of grief, which must be felt in order to be healed, and to the possibility of hope. 

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