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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

The Descendants

Director: Alexander Payne
Producers: Jim Burke, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster

MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2011


This comedy-drama is based on Kaui Hart Hemming's 2007 novel of the same name.

The forty-something Honolulu-based real estate lawyer Matt King descends from the union between a native Polynesian princess and a missionary's businessman son, who tried to find his fortunes in Hawaii in the 1840s. They created a dynasty that flourishes to this day. In at times an exasperated voiceover, Matt tells the viewer that his extended family are the descendants of one of Hawaii's first white land-owning families: "They are like an archipelago scattered over the various Hawaiian Islands. Outsiders think residents live in paradise. I think paradise can go fuck itself. I have not been on a surfboard for 15 years."

King is a workaholic, so dedicated to his legal practice that he neglected his wife Elizabeth, a flirtatious, thrill-loving beauty, obsessed with speed sports on land and water. Matt holds the controlling share of his extended family's estate in a trust that controls 25,000 acres of pristine land on the island of Kaua'i. The trust will expire in seven years because of the rule against perpetuities. Therefore the King family has decided to sell the land to Kaua'i native Don Holitzer for tourist and condo development. This sale will make all family members multimillionaires. But it will also put vast tracts of virgin land in the hands of despoilers and betray a 150-year-old family legacy. Just before they are ready to formally endorse this deal, a speedboat accident off Waikiki Beach renders Elizabeth comatose.

The newly single parent is not close to his angry daughters, the 10-year-old rebellious, intellectually precocious, foul-mouthed Scottie and the 17-year-old Alex, a heavy drinking, drug-abusing semi-delinquent who returns home from boarding school . Matt refers to himself as the "back-up parent" or "understudy". With Elizabeth in the hospital, he is now forced to confront Scottie's inappropriate behavior with other children and Alex's self-destructive conduct.

Matt learns from the doctors that Elizabeth will never awaken from her coma again. This means that under the terms of her living will she must be disconnected from life support. When he explains to Alex that Elizabeth will not recover and must be allowed to die, the teenager tells him that her mom had an affair at the time of the accident. Alex holds a grudge against her mother that she refuses to relinquish in spite of Elizabeth's condition. Subsequently Matt confronts two family friends and learns that his wife's lover is named Brian Speer. These revelations send him into a tailspin.

When Matt sets out on an angry revenge trip, he constantly loses his dignity and is distracted from his mission by those accompanying him and the people he meets. Eventually his perspective changes and he decides to search for Brian in order to tell him that Elizabeth will soon be dead and to give him a chance to visit her while she is still alive. Seeing a public picture of him, Matt discovers that his wife's lover is a real estate agent. Because Brian is currently vacationing on Kaua'i, he decides to find him there, taking the girls and Alex's slacker boyfriend Sid with him.

While jogging on the beach in Kaua'i, Matt passes a man that he recognizes as Brian. He trails him and sees him enter a vacation cottage owned by Matt's cousin, Hugh. In a conversation with Hugh, he finds out that Brian is Don Holitzer's brother-in-law. If Matt and his family sell the land, Brian gets a high commission.

Matt visits the Speer family at the cottage and introduces himself as Elizabeth's husband. When they have a moment alone, he tells Brian about Elizabeth's condition, and that he wants to give him a chance to say goodbye. Brian responds that the affair was only a fling for him although Elizabeth loved him, and that he feels sorry for the pain he caused Matt. He emphasizes that he loves his wife Julie and their children.

After visiting the King family's picturesque land with Alex and Scottie, who are against the sale, Matt meets with his cousins to vote on the fate of the estate. The majority vote is for the planned transaction, but Matt has second thoughts now. He wants to keep the land and find a different solution. Shocked, Hugh tells him that he and the other cousins may take legal action, but Matt is undeterred.

Back at Queen's Hospital, Elizabeth is about to be disconnected from life support. Her father praises her and tells his son in law that she would have been ok if he had been a more generous and loving husband. Matt remains calm and never discloses anything about Elizabeth's affair. Instead of Brian Speer, his wife Julie arrives, telling Matt she now knows about the affair. She expresses forgiveness to Elizabeth emphatically. To avoid further drama and to give Alex and Scottie space to say their final goodbyes, Matt sent Julie out of the hospital room.

Matt and Alex come to terms with Elisabeth's betrayal. Her husband kisses her tenderly before he has to let her go. Later, Matt, Alex, and Scottie scatter Elizabeth's ashes in the ocean off Waikiki. The film closes with the three curled up on the couch, eating ice cream, and watching The March of the Penguins while sharing the quilt that was on Elizabeth's deathbed.

Cinema Alchemy

45-year-old Michael came to see me because he struggled with grief as a result of his impending divorce. Since his wife Jennifer left him for another man, the couple had lived separately. They shared the care for their children, 12-year-old Dillon and 15-year-old Keira. Each parent had the children 50% of the time.

For several sessions, we focused on the grief of his 20-year marriage as well as his guilt toward his children about the breakup. Even though it was not easy for Michael to talk about his thoughts and feelings, he eventually started to make some progress.

Encouraged by this positive development, my client brought up another concern. He told me that Jennifer used to be the primary parent. "I don't really know my kids very well", Michael explained, "I don't know how to talk to them. Jennifer always said that she is much better with them. Therefore I just worked long hours and hardly saw them during the week. Now I am home early, but I don't really know how to talk to them. Most evenings are really odd. Everybody just goes to their bedroom after dinner."

At this point, I encouraged Michael to watch The Descendants . I asked him to find out what the protagonist, Matt, struggles with in his relationship with his kids. What are his strengths and weaknesses in his interactions with his children? What does he, Michael, do better than Matt? What can he learn from the character? My client appeared interested in the movie and in my questions.

Michael brought a notebook with his comments about the movie to our next session. Now he seemed more talkative and in touch with his emotions than before. Without waiting for my questions, he said: "This film moved me emotionally. It appears as if Matt is more in search of himself than of his wife's lover when he learns about the affair. I like this about him. I also want to learn more about myself - for my kids, for a future relationship, and for me. Matt gets a lot of things right in the end. But first he mishandles many things, sometimes because of his impulsiveness. I am not like that. I think before I speak. Therefore my kids never feel jerked around by me. I want to talk more with them even though I am not used to it. But Matt was not used to talking to his children much either. Maybe I can learn that too. And he often seems overwhelmed, and sometimes paralyzed. I can definitely relate to that."

I told my client that suddenly becoming a full-time parent for one week at a time has to be very stressful and therefore overwhelming. Tears appeared in his eyes as he acknowledged that many expectations of himself as a parent were unrealistic. He was now able to adjust these expectations and consequently become more relaxed around his children. This allowed Michael to question Jennifer's negative evaluation of him. Discovering that he handled some things even better than Matt gave him the necessary confidence to interact with Keira and Dillon more easily.

A few sessions later, Michael brought up The Descendents again. He told me that he liked the final scene because the family looked so comfortable there. He also mentioned that The March of the Penguins is symbolic of struggling with being a nurturing father. I encouraged him to visualize himself watching a movie with his kids like the King family in this final scene. Michael loved the visualization and said, "Maybe I can become a nurturing father like the penguins". "If you can visualize it, this capacity is in you," I responded.

Michael's relationship with his children developed very positively. He continued practicing his visualization whenever he encountered fears and doubts. Eventually watching movies with his children together on the couch became a frequent event that they all loved and looked forward to.

Theoretical Contemplations

For my client Michael, The Descendents as well as the film within this movie, The March of the Penguins, served as teaching tools. He was able to identify with Matt, learn from the character's strengths and gain confidence from acknowledging that he had certain strengths, which Matt was missing. This helped him let go of his negative self-image as a parent that he had developed during his marriage.

The Descendents also elicited emotions for my client. This was particularly important for him because he tended to intellectualize or otherwise suppress his emotions. By triggering emotions, movies can open doors that otherwise might stay closed. For some clients, it is safer and therefore easier to let go of their defenses when feelings arise while watching a movie than when they arise in "real life" with "real people". They experience emotions that they are often not in touch with through identification with certain characters and their predicaments.

Guidelines and Questions for Work with Clients

•  What are the protagonist's strengths and weaknesses?

•  In which way are you more skilled than this character?

•  How is this character more skilled than you?

•  What can you learn from the character?

•  Visualize yourself in a scene in which the character demonstrates something that you would like to bring into your life.


Birgit Wolz wrote and co- wrote the following continuing education online courses:

Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.

Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.

Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.

Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)

Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.

DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.

Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy