When I was a kid, which alas I only now am in spirit, I spent a decent amount of time looking at adults and presuming, sometimes rightly so, that they knew best. I believed that they understood things I was not quite capable of grasping yet; that their decisions inherently made sense and should be followed, even if I didn’t like them. I suspected that my own parents just knew what to do with some sort of parent-specific magic. It seemed to me that their rules, whatever they were, were preordained, and that bedtimes were of course always at nine, or ten, or eventually maybe even eleven.
As an adult, I have come to realize that my parents—like many other parents I imagine—are just people trying to do a good job taking care of their kids. This may sound silly, but it was quite the serious revelation for me. Even the best parents are not martyrs like Harry Potter’s parents. They’re probably more like the Weasleys, with their crazy house and messy kitchen and cluttered garage. The Weasleys do their best, but their best doesn’t always work out as well as planned. Or parents might be more like the less-magical but awesome Tami and Eric Taylor, or even MTV’s teen mothers, trying under difficult circumstances to do a good job despite being kids themselves.
Parenting is work. Fun work most of the time (according to my folks), but work nonetheless—which perhaps is why my mom quite smartly developed a system to pay herself for the work she did around the house and taking care of me when I was really little. And because I am at a point in my life where parenting is not quite on the table and but definitely up for discussion fairly often these days—not because I’m planning on being a parent anytime soon, but because many of my friends have started having children—I am all the more intrigued by representations of it.
That’s why The Descendants stood out to me. The Descendants begins with the near-fatal boating accident of Matt King’s (George Clooney) wife, Elizabeth. It becomes clear early on that Elizabeth will not survive. The film follows Matt and his daughters as they come to terms with her sudden death. Amidst his mourning, Matt learns from his eldest daughter, Alexandra, that Elizabeth was having an affair. The rest of the film follows Matt and his daughter’s search for his wife’s lover, including a Kaui vacation, to track him down. While this narrative does not laud Matt’s parenting skills, it suggests that there is no model or manual for good parenting and that everyone, including each of the family members, copes differently with grief, loss, and life.