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Film shows our misunderstanding of love

By Sister Helena Burns, FSP | Contributor
Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Descendants” is all about cuckolded husband Matt King (George Clooney). Except his wife is in a coma when he finds out. Matt must choose how he will now feel about his wife (he can’t deal with her), and how he will deal with her lover. It’s a story of the choices surrounding forgiveness. Who will we forgive? When? How? Why?

It’s clear that Matt was a neglectful husband and father, having been married to his work. He seems to have a closer relationship with his rebellious teenage daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) than his precocious 10-year-old daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), which seems to indicate that his distancing was a gradual thing. But his wife’s accident woke him up to his sorry state of affairs (pun intended) and he is doing his darndest to be a good parent now.

This movie is incredibly tender (among all the brattiness and foul language). It is a real theology of the body movie but with reservations. First of all, Matt’s wife, Elizabeth, is in a coma for the entire movie. And everyone talks to her because it’s her. Elizabeth is her body, her body is Elizabeth.

Marriage is sacred in “The Descendants.” To be unfaithful is a terrible, terrible thing. However, one might argue that “love” is treated as something more to do with feelings. For example, it’s very important to the characters if someone really “loves” someone else (whether or not they’re having a fling with them). But love and marriage are more than these deep-seated, je ne sais quoi feelings.

What if one really, really “loved” more than one person? And yet, since we — particularly in the West — have adopted the “romantic love” version of marriage, the question of choosing one person based on attraction or admiration and how that plays out is a legitimate concern.

This is not a movie for teens, methinks. The message is: The teens are in control. You will get what you want (from your parents) in the end.

We are living in post-parental-authority times. The clear message is: You can be as wild as you want as a teenager. You’re supposed to be bad. Do anything you want. Nothing bad will happen to you. You will “outgrow” it unscathed.

However, despite various reservations about this film, everyone is treated as a full-blown person. No one is just a problem or an obstacle or a story device or a cheap laugh. Tremendous human dignity here.