Home for the holidays, I told my mother that my students couldn’t believe I was in my thirties. Her response without missing a beat was, “That’s probably because you act so juvenile.” I wish I could say it went uphill from there, but sadly as I was helping to clear the table of turkey, etc., my grandma lamented, “Oh Jake, and you were doing so good! You look like you’ve gained all the weight back.”
In the safe white light of New Years, a colleague’s response to my tales was: “Wow, your family is really harsh.” My family is harsh… sometimes; and sometimes they are ridiculously loving, tender, supportive, manipulative, cowardly and courageous. All of the time, they are human.
Two of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture: Tree of Life and The Descendants, explicitly deal with the very complicated situation of being a member of a family. For better or for worse, we are someone’s daughter, son, father, mother, sister, brother or spouse — and that is no easy task, saturated as it is with all sorts of conflicting agendas and claims that cannot be compartmentalized like a job. With family, you’re in it for life.
While The Tree of Life focuses primarily on the relationship between a father and his son, The Descendants examines a cobweb of familial affiliations. Protagonist Matt King (George Clooney, Up In The Air, Oceans Eleven) is forced to look after his two troubled daughters (Shailene Woodley, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and Amara Miller) after his wife is rendered comatose in a boating accident.
[SPOILER ALERT FOR THIS PARAGRAPH] King, a workaholic attorney, discovers his wife has been having an affair and was planning on leaving him and, through a series of circumstances, winds up journeying with his daughters to confront the man his wife was in love with. The whole situation is a shambles and at the end of the film no one has been fixed and nothing has been solved, yet there is a strange sort of serenity, as King and his two daughters sit on the couch, covered in a blanket, eating ice cream and watching television. Bliss, family style.
Family is loose ends, broken promises, and hair-tearing frustration. Frequently there is no solution. At one point in The Descendants, King muses on how he and his cousins have done nothing to merit an enormous piece of pricy Hawaiian real estate that’s been entrusted to them; that sense of arbitrariness parallels family. Family is not our dream; it is not our ideals. It is our reality: our life and breath.
Matt King, like all of us, must face his family, not as he would have them, but as they are — bruised, needy, flourishing, affirming and divine. They are a paradox. They are family.