Paradise, re-configured

by Kristin on December 20, 2011

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by Ricardo y Marta

Jason and I recently saw the movie The Descendants, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

Before I tell you why, let me warn you: This is a very sad movie (yes, I cried). It’s not the sort of movie most people want to see the week before Christmas, when they’re focusing on conjuring up comfort and joy. I’m pretty sure it came out when it did because the filmmakers wanted to squeeze in before the Academy Award deadline (and this film is sure to get several nominations and, most likely, awards).

But it also occurred to me, as I sat in the theater, my heart aching, that The Descendants is very much an Advent story.

Here’s what you need to know about the movie—no spoilers: It takes place in Hawaii, and the main character (Matt King, played by George Clooney) is trying to hold his family together (immediate and extended) while his wife is in a coma after a boating accident.

Sounds just like the Christmas story, right?

OK, maybe not, but there are several themes that feel exactly right for this season, this moment, and they’ve helped me contextualize what it is, exactly, that we’re both longing for and celebrating.

- Waiting. In the movie, Matt and his daughters spend a lot of time waiting in the hospital. Of course they’re waiting with hope that their wife/mother will wake up, but on another level they’re waiting for anything that will shake them out of their stuck sameness. They are helpless and suspended, waiting for something to happen to loosen the bonds.

- Wondering. A big part of The Descendants revolves around the mystery of life—the beauty of it pressed up close against the fragility. We work so hard to gain control over our lives, yet life reminds us, again and again, how little we’re able to shape,  prevent, predict, or fully understand. Embracing—or at least accepting—the mystery is an important part of having faith in what Jesus came to earth to do.

- Contrast. When you set a story in beautiful Hawaii, then highlight some of life’s ugliest, harshest realities, you’re pretty much making a movie that revolves around the theme of contrast. Paradise and hardship. Love and pain. Riches and loss. Holiness born in a dirty stable, far from home.

- Complexity. Nothing is straight forward or easy in The Descendants. There are problems layered on top of problems, and ugliness woven into the beauty, anger intertwined with the love. The beautiful Hawaiian landscape spreads itself out beyond the windows of the hospital room, setting the stage for a story that makes you both laugh and cry. Sounds a lot like the stories in the Bible, doesn’t it? And also a bit like my story, and the world’s.

- Redemption. Ultimately, there’s healing and hope out of tragedy and hurt, but the form the healing takes doesn’t always look like we think it will. In The Descendants and in life, broken relationships will be made whole, but they aren’t always healed the way we think they will be. We will move forward, but not always in the direction or speed we anticipated. The king doesn’t always look the way we think he should. And in the end, this is all good, because we don’t always know what we need—or where we should hope this life journey will take us.

Similar Posts:


  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • email
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Twitter
  • Sarah Louise

    oh beautiful. this is the kind of movie I don’t go to alone, so who knows when I’ll see it, but it looks good. Great post.


  • Jennifer

    I used to think I could handle movies like this. Shoot, I used to be able to handle movies like this. Since becoming a mother, I am a nutty nut who refuses sad movies. I can’t watch Life is Beautiful or Sam I Am, even. Of course, this makes me the focus of derision among certain spouses who shall remain unnamed.

    I will probably see this movie, and bawl like a baby, but it’s only because of YOU!

    I’ve been thinking along the same lines this week and a post I’ve written that reflects some of these ideas will appear tomorrow, (we tend to do that, no?) But, yes. This: healing doesn’t always look the way we think it will. Neither did the king they got look like the king they clamored for. Well done.

  • Laura

    I haven’t been able to fully process this movie because I too recently went through the experience of waiting for and watching someone I love die. Those scenes overtook my emotions and I wasn’t fully able to absorb everything.. However, there are so many layers to this story and I recognized myself in all of them. You did the work of breaking down for me something that’s been nagging in the back of my mind. I have thought about what it would have been like to read this in book form vs.seeing it. The contrasting images are really powerful. It’s a definite must see on a happy, warm, sun-shiny day ;)

  • Randy

    Beautiful. Meaningful. You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need (hat tip) in ways you never expected. What’s what makes the mystery so fantastic if we can just remember that. And try to stay awake to the possibilities.

  • Shawn Smucker

    I will make sure I see this movie, Kristin. Sounds powerful. I love how so many modern movies and books flow with the natural paradigm of Christianity: Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, Redemption.

    Merry Christmas.

  • Kristin T.

    Sarah Louise, thank you. I hope you get to see the movie, and that you have a meaningful Christmas.

    Jennifer, my approach to movies changed after I had kids, too. Everything seems more fragile and more precious than before, doesn’t it?

    Laura, I can’t imagine seeing that movie after having gone through something similar. I hope your ability to process and make sense of it all continues to do important work in your heart and mind. It’s kind of a good example of that whole “healing doesn’t always look the way we think it will” experience, isn’t it?

    Randy, yes, there’s so much mystery around what we want, need and in the end get! Also, I love that you brought up this: “…try to stay awake to the possibilities.”

    Shawn, I’ve noticed that too. They’re sort of timeless themes, aren’t they? It makes me wonder how much the Christian framework was a part of the original idea for the story (book, movie, etc.), and how much of it comes from the lens through which we experience the story. I’m sure people who don’t share my perspective wouldn’t see any of what I saw in The Descendants (and for that matter, I wonder how much of it I would have picked up on if I had seen the movie a different time of year or a different time in my life…).

  • Joi

    Kristin, I know it’s not very cool to respond to old posts, but I have to tell you how deeply insightful this one on “The Descendants” is, and I haven’t even seen the movie! So important for all of us to grasp in the middle of the muck what it was that Jesus came to do for us. I would love to be able to borrow this for our church newsletter. First chance I’ve had in a long time to check on your blog.