Tracing the journey of land baron Matt King who struggles with unexpected occurrences in his monotonous life, The Descendants won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as two Golden Globe Awards for Best Picture – Drama and Best Actor – Drama for Clooney.
Matthew "Matt" King (George Clooney) is a Honolulu-based attorney and the sole trustee of a family trust of 25,000 pristine acres on Kauai. The land has great monetary value, but is also a family legacy. While Matt has always ably managed his own finances, most of his cousins have squandered their inheritances. With the trust expiring in seven years due to the rule against perpetuities, the King clan is pressuring Matt to sell the land for hundreds of millions of dollars. Amidst these discussions, a boating accident has rendered Matt's wife, Elizabeth, comatose. With Elizabeth hospitalized, Matt is forced to cope with his two troubled daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) who seeks attention by bullying other children, and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) who has a history of substance abuse and is away at a private boarding school on the Big Island. Doctors determine that Elizabeth's coma is irreversible and her living will directs all life support to be discontinued. When Matt tells Alex, she reveals that she caught Elizabeth having an affair before the accident, causing a major rift between mother and daughter.
Two close family friends tell Matt that Elizabeth was unhappy and wanted to leave him for her lover, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), a real estate agent. After Matt arranges for friends to bid Elizabeth goodbye, he decides Speer should also have an opportunity. He and the girls, and also Alex's slacker boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), travel to Kauai to find Brian. While there, Matt's cousin, Hugh (Beau Bridges) mentions that Brian is brother-in-law to Don Hollitzer, the developer to whom the family wants to sell the land. Brian stands to make a small fortune from the sales commission. Matt confronts Brian and informs him Elizabeth is dying and offers him an opportunity to see her one last time. Brian declines, admitting that although Elizabeth was in love with him, it was only a fling to him; he loves his wife, Julie (Judy Greer) and their children, then apologizes to Matt for the pain he caused.
When Elizabeth is disconnected from life support, her father, Scott (Robert Forster) admonishes Matt for not being a more generous and loving husband. Choosing not to disclose the details of her affair to Scott, Matt agrees, but Sid and Alex both unexpectedly defend Matt. At the King family meeting, Matt overrules the majority of his cousins who favor selling to Hollitzer. Matt decides to keep the land and look for a different solution to the problem posed by the rule against perpetuities. Shocked, Hugh tells Matt that he and the other cousins will take legal action if Matt refuses to sell, but Matt is undeterred.
After learning of Brian's affair with Elizabeth and realizing that he will not visit, Julie comes to the hospital, partly feeling that decency obliges her to. She tearfully admits to Elizabeth that she wants to hate her for "trying to destroy" her family, but that she forgives her. Matt finally comes to terms with his wife's betrayal and her impending death. He tenderly kisses her goodbye, followed by Alex and Scottie, and later, scatter Elizabeth's ashes in the ocean off Waikiki. The film concludes with the three at home sitting together sharing ice cream and watching television, all wrapped in the Hawaiian quilt Elizabeth had been lying in.
The film began its on-location shoot in Hawaii on March 15, 2010. Most of the film was shot in Honolulu and around Hanalei Bay. The location used as Matt King's house lacked the banyan tree described in the book; the filmmakers solved the issue by transplanting a banyan. For the scene where the King family drives up to a ridge to look over their land, the film used a 3,000-acre private cattle ranch on the south shore of Kauai, Kipu Ranch. Kaui Hart Hemmings, the author of the novel on which the movie was based, had a cameo as Matt King's secretary.
The private boarding school attended by Alex King was depicted as Mid-Pacific Institute, which is in Honolulu, Oʻahu. This contradicts the scene in the movie where Matt and Scottie travel by plane to the Big Island to pick up Alex. Kaui Hart Hemmings stated that Hawaii Preparatory Academy, which is located in Kamuela, Hawaiʻi (the Big Island), was the inspiration for the private boarding school.
Post-production began on June 14, and continued into February 2011. It screened at the Telluride, Toronto and New York film festivals and was originally scheduled to have a limited release on December 16, 2011, but was moved to November 23, 2011 and then November 18, 2011.
The soundtrack uses Hawaiian music, featuring artists including Gabby Pahinui, Ray Kane, Keola Beamer, Lena Machado, Sonny Chillingworth, Jeff Peterson, Makana, and Reverend Dennis Kamakahi.
The Descendants opened in North America on November 16, 2011 in a limited release in 29 theaters and grossed $1,190,096 averaging $41,038 per theater and ranking 10th at the box office. The film then had its wide release on December 9 in 876 theaters and grossed $4,380,138 averaging $5,000 per theater and ranking 7th at the box office. The film was in cinemas for 156 days and its widest release in the United States was 2,038 theaters. The film ended up earning $82,584,160 domestically and $94,659,025 internationally for a total of $177,243,185.
On Rotten Tomatoes, The Descendants received a rating of 89%, based on 242 reviews, with an average rating of 8.1 out of 10. The site's critical consensus states, "Funny, moving, and beautifully acted, The Descendants captures the unpredictable messiness of life with eloquence and uncommon grace." Metacritic gives the film a score of 84 out of 100 based on 43 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".
The Descendants has appeared on the following critics' top ten lists for the best films of 2011: