Today on “Reel Christianity”, we’re going to look at a movie that just arrived in theaters a few weeks ago. I usually don’t do this, but this movie impacted me enough that I thought it was important to share it with you all. This time of the year, Oscar buzz is starting up—and, if you don’t know what that means, that’s the hype for the Academy Awards to see which movies were the best of the year. “The Descendants” is one of the movies that have gotten the most hype. The script is very well-written, George Clooney gives the greatest performance I’ve ever seen him give, and the end of the movie made me tear up a little. It’s definitely one of the best films I’ve seen in 2011—second only to “The Tree of Life”, which came out back in July.
But enough babble. Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer in Hawaii who’s got a lot on his plate. His wife Elizabeth has just been in a boating accident that’s put her in a coma, completely unresponsive. On top of that, in seven years, the trust will run out of a huge amount of Hawaiian land that Matt owns, land that has been passed down through generations of his family. Matt and his cousins have decided to sell the land, and the deal is to officially be made very soon. But Matt’s more concerned about his family, and he’s still very upset about the accident. When he and his youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) are out to eat one day, they see the man who was driving Elizabeth in the boat when she had her accident, and even though the driver is very sorry for what he did, Matt (and Scottie, for that matter) aren’t willing to forgive him.
When he learns that Elizabeth will not be waking up and will soon be taken off life support, he takes his youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and goes to a boarding school on another island where his oldest daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) is attending—and where he finds her drunk with a friend. It’s revealed that Alex and Elizabeth were fighting about something before she left for school, but Matt has no idea what it is. So eventually, still upset about it, Alex tells her father that his wife was cheating on him. Matt finds out the man’s name is Brian Speer, a local realtor. And after Matt tells a few close friends and family about Elizabeth’s condition, he decides to take his daughters and try to find Brian Speer.
Well, sort of. He takes them (and Alex’s possible boyfriend Sid [Nick Krause]) to their grandparents’ house, where Elizabeth’s father (Robert Forster) bitterly tells Matt and Alex that they were bad family to Elizabeth. He doesn’t even indicate he knows anything about Elizabeth’s affair. On their way home, they pass a sign for a house for sale with a realtor’s picture and name on it: Brian Speer. They find out that Brian and his family (he has a wife and two sons) are on vacation, and Matt and Alex decide to track him down somehow.
Eventually, they do find him, and as Sid distracts Scottie, Matt and Alex go to the Speers’ cottage that they are currently staying in, and Matt confronts Brian (Matthew Lilliard). Matt, even though he is still unwilling to forgive, does not tell Brian’s wife, Julie (Judy Greer). And after asking him a few questions, Matt decides to leave. Soon, however, he finds out that Brian happens to work for the man who is considering buying the land that Matt and his cousins are selling. So Matt is faced with an interesting dilemma.
In the end, Matt decides not to sell the land. He believes that since he and his cousins have been entrusted this land by their ancestors, and it would be wrong to just give it up. His cousins hate him for it, of course, and soon after, Elizabeth finally passes away. But not before people come to say their last goodbyes, including Elizabeth’s parents, her daughters, and… Julie Speer. Having found out about the affair, she now comes to see Matt and Elizabeth and tell Elizabeth, even though she is comatose, that she forgives her. Matt, in turn, finds strength to forgive Elizabeth:
MATT: Goodbye, my love… My friend… My pain… My joy… Goodbye.
And Elizabeth passes away, her ashes poured into the shores of Hawaii, and Matt, Alex, and Scottie are left without a mother but bonded better than they ever have been before.
There are two ideas in this film that struck me. One of them isn’t as obvious as the other, and that is the idea of Matt not selling the land because it has been entrusted to them. That is where “The Descendants” gets its title: that part of Hawaii was inherited by natives long ago, who then passed down to their descendants, who passed it down to their descendants, and so on down to Matt King. And because it’s been passed down to him, he feels guilty about just selling it away.
It’s almost like what Jesus said in Luke 12:48: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” If God gives us certain situations, people, or even abilities that we must confront, we must serve God in the best ways we can in all of those situations, even if not doing so may seem beneficial.
But the most powerful idea in “The Descendants” for me is the idea of forgiveness. We see Matt at the beginning of the film unwilling to forgive the driver of the boat, then Elizabeth for her unfaithfulness, then Brian for the affair. But after he sees Julie able to forgive Elizabeth, it seems that this gives him the strength to forgive as well. And this reminded me of something I remember learning about in Sunday school a while back. While studying the Lord’s Prayer, we noted how Jesus says we should pray: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, found in Matthew 6:12. In verses 14-15, he adds, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
If we do not forgive others, why should we be forgiven ourselves? My prayer for you is that whatever situation you find yourself in today, you would serve God to the best of your ability, even if that means forgiving others even when it is hard.