The Descendants Strikes at the Severed Heart of Our Special Relationships

On the Monday before Thanksgiving I awoke to experience a kind of short fuse in my decision-making mind, my connection with the right-mindedness that had seemed so abundantly available just hours earlier once more seemingly frayed. I couldn’t seem to pry my eyes away from the screen of my dream, my tragic starring role, and its unfortunate cast of supporting actors. My computer motherboard had coincidentally blown that very morning, leaving me likewise disconnected from a cornucopia of nagging tasks. So I decided to take my own advice about what to do when resistance to what this Course is teaching strikes and the dream seems once more all too wrenchingly real; I headed to the movies.

The Descendants, starring George Clooney as beleaguered father and husband Matt King coping with his wife’s impending death strikes at the severed heart of what A Course in Miracles calls our special relationships. The chosen ones with whom we endlessly bargain for exclusive love in an effort to replace the real all-inclusive variety we believe we squandered in our selfish decision to strike off on our own. Directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways) and based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the film also turns inside out, upside down, and all around the multi-layered theme of inheritance. Matt’s inheritance as a native Hawaiian and a flawed, conflicted human being hell-bent on making amends for his failure to find and keep real love; the inheritance of unconscious guilt and fear we secretly covet over our decision to side with the ego’s belief in the tiny mad idea of separation from our source.

The movie immediately plunges viewers into the troubled paradise of contemporary Hawaii, a land awash in failed romance, its inhabitants battling the same demons as their mainland counterparts, the poignancy of the “human condition” (read ego thought system) painfully illuminated against the mighty beauty of a much exploited natural world. A milieu in which the aptly named King appears to have inherited in literal and figurative ways the burden of his family’s entitlement. Matt and his cousins—sharing roots stretching back to the first settlers and native royalty—together own a vast, unspoiled parcel of family land in Kauai. The task of collaborating with his extended family largely intent on selling the land off to developers has fallen to Matt, and his decision to sell or retain the trust and its consequent impact on the local economy is being carefully watched by island inhabitants.

Wealth and pedigree aside, the real estate development lawyer has tried to live a modest life, supporting his family largely from his law practice. The more pressing decision he faces is what to do about his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie)–who lies in a coma following a boating accident—and two children, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and luminously angry-at-everything 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). As he waits in his wife’s hospital room for signs of returning life the self-described “backup parent” articulates his regrets about the workaholic tendencies he believes have driven a wedge between them, and promises to make amends, bargaining with her inert form. But the doctor soon informs him Elizabeth will never wake up, and Matt must break the news to family and friends and decide when to pull the plug as ordered by his wife’s directive.

Hollywood Royal Clooney offers a nuanced performance as a man fraught with the unpredictability of the ego thought system and his own conflicted feelings about his wife, their deteriorating life together, and children who seem to suffer from that same old acute authority problem; resentful rather than thankful for their father’s resurrection in their lives. Striving to protect his wayward spawn from the news of their mother’s imminent demise and struggling to reference his own elusive response, Matt stalls for time, only to learn from his older daughter that Elizabeth has been having an affair with a local real estate agent. The news unleashes long-simmering anger at his wife for her apparently chronic, reckless ways acted out over the course of their life together. Anger now justified by betrayal, Matt enlists Alexandra to help find and confront the real estate agent on a trip to Kauai accompanied by her goofy boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) and an oblivious Scottie before returning to face the inevitability of disconnecting his wife from life support.

But finally pulling off a bungled confrontation with his wife’s lover does little to assuage Matt’s complex feelings toward a relationship that had already suffered a long, sad death.  Matt trips and falls repeatedly as he winds his way back to the fateful bedside on a trail of broken promises: Elizabeth to Matt and their children, the girls to their parents, and Matt to his wife, his kids, his land, his cousins, and ultimately, himself. At one point as he gazes out a plane window at the string of islands that comprise the archipelago of his ancestors, Matt likens his family members to separate islands slowly drifting apart, an apt description of us all here in a dream of exile from all-inclusive love.

Despite its subject matter, The Descendants never dips into sentimental waters. So many moments in this film ring hauntingly and refreshingly true. Matt’s father-in-law punching the bobble-headed Sid in the face over his confounding reaction to his wife’s Alzheimer’s. Sid’s poignant revelation to Matt that he is mourning the recent death of his father in a drunk-driving accident. The appearance of the wife of Elizabeth’s lover (Judy Greer) at her bedside to forgive her for destroying her family (as convulsively genuine an example of what the Course calls “forgiveness to destroy” as I have ever seen on the big screen), Alexandra and Sid rallying to Matt’s defense when his father-in-law accuses him of denying his daughter the happy life she deserved and the boat she always wanted. But in a film brimming with unexpectedly raw moments, shocking humor, and shining performances; perhaps the most revealing of the special relationship conundrum arrives as Matt bids Elizabeth a final farewell, planting a kiss on the forehead of his love, his joy, and his pain.

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(Note: Safe Haven is not an A Course in Miracles work. Nonetheless these characters share a deep longing and active seeking for an elusive seeming love that will never fail them, and a sense of true meaning and purpose in an ultimately meaningless world. Their quest is our own, and what ultimately leads us to find a better way of living in this world.)


  1. An excellent review of an excellent movie… and a reminder to turn my inner film critic’s interpretation over to the Teacher of Kindness we all share, so that my ego’s attempts to derive meaning from an isolated (island) context of a mirrored wisp of a dream, or practice ‘forgiveness to destroy’ to further pointless projection all – gently! – end up on the cutting room floor in my mind. 🙂

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