Pulling Back the Kama’aina Curtain in “The Descendants”

November 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

Surveying the Family Legacy in "The Descendants"/Courtesy Fox Searchlight

I was one of those who charged off to see “The Descendants” during its opening weekend. The movie portrays a wealthy lawyer, Matt King (George Clooney) who finds out that his wife, in a coma following a boat racing accident, will  a) not recover, and b) was having an extramarital affair and planning to divorce him. Although I generally dislike family dramas about medical emergencies, moreso if they involve comatose patients, I was interested the movie’s subplot, which concerns the looming sale of land held in a family trust.

The tract in question is a spread on Kaua’i, an island I regard as my second home, and this feature alone would have driven me to “The Descendants.” But I was also interested in the fact that the movie was about a kama’aina (lit. “child of the land,” a term for Hawai’ians of all ethnic backgrounds except pure-blooded Hawai’ian) family descended from haole missionaries and merchants, as well as a Hawai’ian princess. [The author of the book on which the movie is based, Kaui Hart Hemmings, is a member of the Wilcox family of Kauai, whose ancestors include missionaries, plantation owners and a native Hawai’ian whose name she carries. Disclosure: Although I don’t know Hemmings or her family, I did research for my undergraduate thesis at Grove Farm, the Wilcox plantation.]

An obvious model for the King family is the Bishops, who trace their lineage to the haole banker Charles Bishop and his wife Princess Bernice Pauahi, the last descendant of King Kamehameha I. In 1884, Bernice Pauahi Bishop placed the bulk of her estate–vast landholdings throughout Hawai’i–in trust to establish two schools, one for boys and one for girls, called the Kamehameha Schools. The Bishop Trust was originally land-rich and cash-poor, but its fortunes changed radically after Hawai’i achieved statehood in 1959. Land values soared, making the Bishop Trust not only the largest private landholder in Hawaii but the richest charity in the United States, with an endowment larger than Harvard’s and Yale’s combined.

Alexander Payne and his co-screenwriters, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, take great pains to present a realistic portrayal of Matt King’s dilemma in selling the Kaua’i tract for development. As trustee, he must choose the best possible deal for the trust’s heirs, some of whom are in financial need, yet he must also consider his ancestors, whose legacy is spiritual as well as material. King acknowledges that his family did nothing to earn the land, which came to them as a royal dowry through their Hawai’ian ancestor, and in the end defers the sale.

Without this well-conceived and intensely Hawai’ian dilemma, “The Descendants” would be a Lifetime movie, albeit a very well-acted and picturesque one whose locations are both believable and, for the most part, off the beaten track. Other films set in Hawaii tell the stories of visitors, who logically inhabit tourist locations such as Waikiki. For “The Descendants,” Payne and his location scouts do a peerless job of showing how an old kama’aina family like the Kings would live. They have a lovely old house in Nu’uanu, a lush valley on the windward side of the island. Nearby is the Oahu Country Club, the island’s oldest, whose members are glimpsed playing golf. Elizabeth King lies in a coma at Queen’s Medical Center, a straight shot along the Pali Highway from Nu’uanu, and probably the closest hospital to the scene of her boating accident. Matt King takes his younger daughter to lunch at the Outrigger Canoe Club, another exclusive private club, in Diamond Head.  When the family decamps for Kauai, they stay at the Princeville Resort on the North Shore, with excursions to nearby Kilauea and Hanalei Bay. The family’s land appears to be located in Kilauea, though I don’t know this for sure. But all the locations make sense, not only sociologically but geographically, a practically unheard-of feat in feature films.

After countless films about Hawaii’s tourists, it’s nice to see one about people who not only live in Hawaii but call it their ancestral home. Though heavy on bedside scenes in the ICU, “The Descendants” does a good job of portraying the Kings’ milieu, which in itself is reason to go.  

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§ One Response to Pulling Back the Kama’aina Curtain in “The Descendants”

  • CMrok93 says:

    Clooney and everybody else included is great but it’s really Payne who shines as the writer bringing out some funny humor but not without forgetting about the real rich moments of human drama. Good review.

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