Images of disability are rife in The Descendants, from the very beginning with an establishing shot of a Hawaiian woman in a wheelchair, to the story that centers around the last days of a woman in a coma. Having suffered a severe head injury in a boating accident, Elizabeth King has been on life support at the local hospital for several days. Her young daughter Scottie has been coping by taking numerous photographs, arranging them in scrapbooks decorated with heart shapes, and freaking out her classmates with pictures of her mother on a ventilator. This is interpreted by her teachers as disturbing, even aggressive, behavior, though we at Disability Movies are more inclined to see it as a young girl’s way of expressing love for her mother. (In any case, it comes out later that the other children don’t actually believe Scottie’s mother is in a coma despite the copious photographic evidence, and have been entirely unsympathetic as a result.)
When Elizabeth’s doctors break the news that the damage to her brain is too extensive and she must be taken off of life support in accordance with her advance directives, her husband Matt begins the unenviable task of informing friends and relatives who are still putting lipstick on her, hoping she’ll recover. He first collects his wayward daughter Alexandra from what seems to be a cross between a boarding school and residential treatment center. After her hangover wears off and they have a serious talk, it comes out that Elizabeth has been having an affair. Matt must suddenly process a lot of complicated feelings, and needs to get to the bottom of Alex’s story. The two make plans to investigate further, and Alex enlists her smartmouthed boyfriend Sid for psychological support.
The family visits Elizabeth’s parents, to discover Granddad resplendent in compression stockings and Grandma pleasantly senile. Granddad gently tells her that they must visit Elizabeth in the hospital and be there for her one last time, and Grandma thinks they’re going to meet the Queen. Sid opines that “she knows she’s being funny”, and Grandpa coldcocks him. They retreat to the car, where Matt berates Sid and calls him “the r word”. Sid takes offense, claiming he has a brother with intellectual disabilities. Matt regrets his words, but only until Sid laughs and says he was only joking. Matt nearly punches him as well.
The Descendants bucks all manner of traditional portrayals of sick and disabled people; the woman in a coma is neither angel nor demon, and imparts no life lessons before she dies. It is left to her husband and descendants to puzzle out her effect on them.