Island life isn't always a breeze

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am


The word aloha has always had a certain mystique about it. Its most common usage today is as a greeting, similar to hello and goodbye. Originating from proto-Polynesian language, the word, in fact, is far more encompassing than a simple greeting. It literally means the presence of breath, or the breath of life, but symbolises the friendly, hospitable and harmonious spirit of the Hawaiian people.

Very much of that Hawaiian spirit exists in director Alexander Payne's drama The Descendants. The film, which is generating a lot of Oscars chatter, is based on Hawaii native Kaui Hart Hemmings' debut novel of the same name. The book expanded on one of her short stories, The Minor Wars, from a collection entitled House of Thieves.

Hemmings initially thought of writing from the perspective of the 10-year-old girl Scottie. She soon decided against it, instead allowing the story to unfold through the voice of Scottie's middle-aged father, Matt.

'As soon as I switched into Matt's voice, the story found its rhythm,' recalls Hemmings. 'There was so much at stake for him.'

George Clooney plays Matt King, a man of mixed Hawaiian and white descent. Matt has inherited a parcel of undeveloped land from his royal Hawaiian ancestors.

Just as he's about to sell the land and make millions, his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is involved in a boating accident, leaving her in a coma with severe head trauma.

The accident forces Matt to re-examine his life, and at the same time, take care of his two daughters, Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). His efforts to repair their shattered relationship only make it worse.

To further complicate matters, Matt finds out - through Alexandra no less - that Elizabeth had not been faithful to him. Desperate to find answers and mend his life, he and his two girls embark on a journey to track down his wife's 'other man'.

Much of the film relies on the unique culture of Hawaii, and the history of the natives' interactions with white settlers. As an isolated island, Hawaii bears little resemblance to the rest of the United States and offers a rich learning experience for visitors.

'One of the many things we learned in Hawaii is that people here know their genealogy like people in no other place,' says The Descendants producer Jim Burke.

'Everybody knows when their family first arrived on the island, and some go back six or seven generations and they feel a deep, deep connection to this place. We learned all this by meeting authentic descendants who have inherited land, a lot like Matt.'

Opens on Thursday