By William Deresiewicz
Generations ago, their ancestors seized the land from its native inhabitants. The place is a paradise: abundant beyond wealth and beautiful beyond words. Now they’ve grown lazy and complacent from living off their inheritance. Their authority has collapsed; their children can’t be governed. They wander in the ruined garden, fumbling for what to do.
This is the plot of The Descendants, nominated this year for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Alexander Payne), and Best Actor (George Clooney). It is also the plot of American history, for which the movie, as I take it, is an allegory. Setting the story on Hawaii—a newer conquest, a fresher paradise—only sharpens the themes. So does placing it among the King clan, heirs of a princely tract, ripe for purchase and development, on the island of Kauai.
Clooney is Matt King, sole trustee of the property and pretty much the closest thing the family has to an adult. (Beau Bridges’s face—he’s one of the cousins—slack with the flabby hedonism of beach places, says it all.) Not that adulthood amounts to much in the movie’s world. Early on, Matt flies to the Big Island to bring his older daughter, Alex, home from boarding school. She’s breaking curfew when he arrives, drinking with a friend by the tennis courts. An older girl, some kind of dorm counselor (we can’t quite tell if she’s a grown-up or another kid) attempts to impose discipline. But we can hear it in her voice—shrill, constricted, tentative. She knows the girls aren’t going to listen to her, that her threats are empty, that there’s nothing she can do to make them behave.
The scene doubles the main story. Matt’s wife is in a coma. He calls himself the “back-up parent,” though there’s little evidence that she’s been much of a parent, either, and in their daughters’ behavior, plenty of evidence that she hasn’t. Clooney transforms himself, slumping his Cary Grant grace into a stumbling lope, hunching his eyebrows in grim bewilderment. He blunders around in flip-flops and polo shirts, the local version of the Peter Pan outfits we’ve all adopted. Alex and her sister are deeply unimpressed by his efforts to exert control. These are children who sense their parents’ abdication from adult life and respond accordingly. The grown-ups don’t put limits on themselves, so why should they be allowed to place any on them? Who are they to expect to be taken seriously?
Authority, responsibility, sacrifice, discipline, duty, restraint: we no longer know how to value the qualities of adulthood. The very words are ugly to us. We reject them, because we know, deep down, that we aren’t equipped for them. Instead we worship our own ancestors, the so-called “Greatest Generation” (a phrase that didn’t exist until Tom Brokaw invented it in 1998). Assenting to that myth, we sentence ourselves to permanent childhood. To being, precisely, descendants.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which will be published in August, is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.