“The Descendants”: Environmental history as a family heirloom.

the descendants

I love the movie The Descendants. A quiet but rich think-piece from director Alexander Payne, who made this his first film since the 2004 hit SidewaysThe Descendants is a very interesting movie in a number of ways, highly recommended by critics and audiences alike. It won the 2011 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, from the novel by Hawaiian writer Kaui Hart Hemmings, and was nominated for several others including Best Picture and Best Actor for George Clooney. (The film was written by the same guys who later made The Way, Way Back). There’s a lot that can be said about this film, but in this article I want to talk about an aspect of The Descendants that I haven’t seen or heard discussed much: its environmental sensibility, specifically, how the film and its characters conceive of the physical environment as a sort of family legacy, a kind of thinking from which those of us who care about the environment can learn a lot.

The Descendants takes place entirely in Hawaii. George Clooney stars as Matt King, an attorney whose wife has just had a tragic waterskiing accident, leaving her in a deep coma. When Matt learns that his wife is terminal and must eventually be taken off life support, he has to struggle with the reality that he’ll be stuck raising his two daughters, age 10 and 17, alone. He also learns that his wife was having an affair at the time of her accident, and he begins chasing the wife’s paramour Brian Speer (played by Matthew Lillard) all over the islands. While this is going on Matt struggles with a business decision. He’s the trustee of his very wealthy family’s estate which includes 25,000 acres of as-yet undeveloped land on Kauai. Due to legal rules he has to dispose of it, and several potential buyers are circling. As it happens, one of them is a developer who plans to employ Speer as the agent to sell the tracts. The film centers mostly on the family and personal drama of Matt and the daughters coming to terms with their loss–and each other–and this business problem is established mostly as a subplot.

There’s a surprising amount of environmental history in The Descendants. In a voice-over narration Matt explains that the Kauai land has been in his family since the 1860s; later the camera glides over old family photos showing the illustrious ancestors who are all healthy, wealthy and white. If you know anything about the history of Hawaii, you can guess that the land probably came into the characters’ family in about the second or third generation of white people to live in Hawaii, after American missionaries first came there in 1820. Indeed the ownership of land, especially among a small elite, is one of the major driving forces of Hawaiian history and has affected how the islands have developed, economically, culturally and environmentally. The passage of land into the capitalist market system, dominated by whites, in the 19th century is one of the major reasons why indigenous Hawaiians were displaced and disenfranchised. The cultural value of land as an economic commodity is why Waikiki Beach is backdropped by a solid phalanx of luxury hotels–a vista that we see several times in The Descendants. Matt’s family stands to make hundreds of millions from the sale of their land, and all the potential buyers, we’re told, plan to develop it. At one point we see a model of a proposed development. Guess what it consists of? A solid phalanx of luxury hotels and condos.

At first it seems that The Descendants is going to deal with the who-gets-the-land subplot on its own terms: that it will involve who pays the best price, who Matt King trusts, and after it’s revealed that Speer stands to gain from the sale to a particular buyer, how to make sure Speer gets frozen out. But midway through the picture Matt and his daughters stop by to visit the land, which appears as a beautiful expanse of trees and grass unblemished by human structures. They’ve seen it before, of course–the characters reminisce about camping on the land when the girls were younger–but they’re seeing it now for perhaps the last time, and while Matt’s wife and the girls’ mother is dying. (Spoiler Alert!) Then, at the end of the film, Matt decides against selling to anyone. He’s got seven years to figure out how the family can keep the land legally; he turns down hundreds of millions because, he reasons, somehow he and his family were entrusted with this “piece of paradise,” and ultimately he can’t see converting it into cash as an act worthy of the land’s beauty, history and human meaning.

In this brief scene from The Descendants, Scotty (Amara Miller) informs her father Matt (George Clooney) that her new boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) is definitely going to be involved in family affairs.

There’s an interesting lesson in here. Full of lavish beachfront properties, zooming jet-set islanders and the trappings of the wealthy elite to which the characters obviously belong, The Descendants is hardly a polemic against capitalism, nor are its environmental aspects deployed as a moralistic tale with a standard Lorax-style punchline, “Be kind to the planet.” The movie isn’t really about environmentalism at all–it’s about a family struggling to deal with human loss and unfulfilled expectations. But it shows us a businessman who considers non-economic stakes like family history, natural beauty and emotional connection to the environment as worthy of being considered, and potentially decisive, in a major transaction. This is where our society, our economy and our business leaders need to go in the future. If we’re going to do anything about climate change, for instance, factors that can’t be quantified in economic terms must eventually take precedence over those that can. In the meantime, our conception of good economic stewardship, of good business practices, must change to recognize those values as being every bit as legitimate as dollars and cents.

The decisive factor in The Descendants, foreshadowed by the title, is that the pristine Kauai land belongs to Matt’s family, and he sees himself as entrusted to preserve the family’s legacy. Environmental connections are, the movie shows us, key to that legacy. Essentially the story of the King family’s “descendants” is an environmental history in which they and their identity are as much a part of the land as the trees or soil. Of course we don’t all have 25,000 acres of virgin Hawaiian land in our families, but if we begin thinking of the environment in these terms–and environmental history as the collective family heirloom of our communities and societies–we might find ourselves a long step closer to being able to take meaningful action on some of the most pressing environmental issues that confront us.

The poster for The Descendants is copyright (C) 2011 by Fox Searchlight Pictures. I believe my inclusion of it here constitutes fair use.
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