Friday, February 23 , 2018, 2:06 am | Fair 49º


Cinema in Focus: Film Studies Adultery’s Effects on ‘The Descendants’

George Clooney stars in a moving look at the father/daughter bond

3 Stars — Thought-Provoking

The destructive ripples of an extramarital affair go far beyond the adultery. There’s not only the betrayal of trust within the marriages, but the loss of innocence within the hearts and lives of the children. This multigenerational impact on the descendants is the moral message of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants.

Using the same cinematic eye demonstrated in his previous film Sideways, Payne’s writing and directing style bring together moving images and dialogue with a deep humanity. This combination once more creates a moving film that enriches the viewer, although the language is often unnecessarily vulgar.

The central character who has been betrayed is Matt King (George Clooney). The descendant of a missionary’s son who married a Hawaiian princess more than 150 years earlier, King has become the sole trustee deciding the fate of 25,000 acres of pristine Kauai shoreline. This secondary focus of the film and the impact of ancestors on their descendants add depth to the tale.

When King’s wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), is injured in a boating accident and becomes comatose, King must step out of his self-absorbed law practice and care for their daughters. His teenager, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), is angry about having been sent away to a boarding high school as well as having seen her mother’s indiscretion. His younger daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), is acting out at school because of her insecurity. It is the journey of father and daughters toward healthy family intimacy that is the movement of the story.

Also present in the story is a comic and yet endearing boyfriend of Alexandra’s named Sid (Nick Krause) and a gruff and accusatory father of Elizabeth, Scott Thorsen (Robert Forster). Two other important players in the story are Brian and Julie Speers (Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer).

The moral messages of the film are obvious: Adultery is destructive; business choices need to be made for larger values than economic gain; and forgiveness is necessary for peace to be found. However, what is not evident in the film is how these moral choices are made based on a morality that is grounded in a larger belief system than just personal opinion. History has taught us that human beings who only do what is “good in their own eyes” find themselves in deep pain. If we only discover the destruction of adultery after we commit the act, then we are destined to walk into that pain both individually and as a culture.

This film is helpful in opening our eyes to see that truth.


» As the descendants of unbelievable wealth, King’s father taught him that descendants “need enough money to do something with their lives, but not so much that they do nothing.” Do you agree with this or not? Why?

» The final scene of shared ice cream between father and daughters reveals a simple reality that family intimacy is found in the simplest of moments. How does your family experience and express its intimacy?

» Have you been betrayed in a relationship by a person you trusted completely? Did you find the ability and will to forgive? How did you come to that place of forgiveness?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit

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