In the movie  The Descendants (now in theaters and an Oscar best picture nominee), Matt King (George Clooney) is in crisis.  Who wouldn’t be given what’s happening?  His wife Elizabeth is in a coma following a boat racing accident.  He learns in short order that her condition is irreversible and that she was having an affair.  His two daughters are both troubled young women: 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) is insulting peers, cursing, and regularly waving her middle finger at others, while 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) has been banished to boarding school after a run of substance abuse and rebellion. In a voice-over, Matt says plaintively, “I’m the backup parent; the understudy.”  His daughters are a mystery to him, coded texts he can’t decipher.  If these problems weren’t enough, he is also the sole trustee for 25,000 acres of real estate on Kauai and has plenty of family members–eager for a big payday–pressing him to sell to developers (the movie is set in Hawaii and Matt and his cousins are descendants of Hawaiian royalty).

Matt’s crisis involves more than marital and family problems, though; he’s having a crisis of the soul.  Matt isn’t to blame for his wife’s infidelity and his daughters’ misbehavior, but he knows he isn’t blameless either.  He is a decent man who has lived according to his principles: he’s been hardworking and has spent only what he earned rather than dipping into the proceeds from the family trust.  Yet it is these virtues that are called into question by the current crisis.  His daughters point out he’s been working so hard he hasn’t been part of their lives.  His father-in-law Scott (played well by Robert Forester), grief-stricken by Elizabeth’s condition, complains that Matt neglected her and should have bought her a racing boat (the accident occurred in a borrowed boat).  He tells Matt, “She was a good wife.  She deserved better.”  His daughters’ criticisms and Scott’s attacks don’t seem to bother Matt as much as do his own regrets, though.  Sitting at Elizabeth’s bedside before learning that she won’t recover, he says, “I’m ready to talk.  I’m ready to change.  To be a real husband and a real father.  Just wake up.”  He wants to make amends, but is denied that opportunity.

In his book  The Seasons of a Man’s Life, psychologist Daniel Levinson wrote that during midlife men often are confronted with unpleasant truths about themselves and the worlds they’ve constructed.  The man enters a time of “de-illusionment,” described by Levinson as “a reduction of illusions, a recognition that long-held assumptions and beliefs about self and world are not true.”  Only by identifying and discarding his illusions can a man construct in their place a more lasting and beneficial life structure.  (Levinson refers here specifically to men; he later did a parallel study of adult development in women.) Matt’s life is full of illusions–about his wife, his marriage, his children, and himself.  Will he recognize them for what they are or will he deny the truth and lament his misfortune?

Matt decides he wants to confront his wife’s lover.  With Alexandra’s help, he learns who the man is (a real estate agent named Brian Speer, played by Matthew Lillard) and sets out to accost him.  Confrontations seldom go as we originally imagine, though.  While tracking down Brian, Matt can’t help but wonder about the man’s feelings:  Did he love Elizabeth?  Will he be devastated by her death?  Will he want to say goodbye?  Also, there’s the issue of whether his own neglect of the marriage contributed to his wife’s infidelity.  Who did his wife love, anyway?  Brian squirms uncomfortably when Matt and Alexandra show up at his door, but by this time Matt is more interested in getting answers than he is in extracting revenge.

Matt’s inner struggles also soften his response to his father-in-law’s rant.  When Scott proclaims that his daughter was a good wife and deserved better, Matt pauses, and the viewer wonders whether he will tell Scott of her affair.  Eventually, he looks down and says, “Yes, she deserved better.”  What a gift of compassion to a grieving parent.

Early in the film, while flying between the islands, Matt muses, “A family is like an archipelago.  Together, but separate, alone, and drifting apart.”  To bring himself and his daughters together, Matt has to face his shortcomings as a husband and father and to quickly learn the baffling task of being a parent.  The movie is a riveting portrayal of his efforts to turn the diverging islands that constitute his family into a cohesive whole.