DVD Review: Secondhand Lions

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[Editor's Note: Please welcome our latest contributor, Jenn Brown.]

With SXSW just around the corner, and Tim McCanlies' latest film, The Two Bobs having its world premiere, it's a perfect time to review one of his earlier films, Secondhand Lions. McCanlies is a well-known figure in the local filmmaking scene as a writer, director, and co-founder of Fantastic Fest. His script for 2003's Secondhand Lions was known in Hollywood as one of the best unproduced scripts around, taking 10 years to make it the screen.

It's the 1960s, and Walter (Haley Joel Osment) is a weenie, even by his mother's low standards, so she abandons him to his great-uncles in rural Texas, with hopes of getting part of their rumored wealth. Garth and Hub (Michael Caine, Robert Duvall) after a mysterious 40-year absence, are back home and not taking retirement any more gracefully than the presence of greedy relatives and traveling salesmen. After Walter suggests they spend some of their money, the uncles start spending their wealth on the most outrageous items, starting with a skeet machine and culminating with a lion.

Walter isn't just out of his element, he's never known it. Being dragged around by scheming mother Mae (Kyra Sedgwick), it's no wonder. The uncles, on the other hand, are forced to deal with growing old, and having to compromise for the first time in their lives when the unwanted boy is abandoned in their driveway. No one is happy, but when greedy relatives leech on to the uncles, all three come to a reluctant understanding. Garth regales Walt with yarns about their exploits, each tale more outlandish than the last. The gossip about the uncles is even wilder.

An homage to mid-century coming-of-age films, Secondhand Lions is thematically tight, constantly challenging Walter to separate fact from falsehood, and forcing him to decide which truths really matter. The themes of family and truth, and living life on your own terms keep playing off each other right through to the credits, with some Texas dry-rub sensibilities. It's a melding of elements of The Princess Bride, Field of Dreams, and The Wrestler with Texas sensibilities and old-fashioned coming-of-age stories.

For those of us closer in age to the adult Walter, or even Garth and Hub, it's the best sort of nostalgia, where you can appreciate people for who they are, not just who they appear to be, and love them warts and all. As Hub says, "Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most ... Doesn't matter if it's true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in."

The acting is low-key but nonetheless engaging. Duvall and Caine often steal scenes from each other, Duvall with fire, and Caine with earthy subtlety. Osment easily holds his own, and blossoms as expected. The supporting players have more caricatured roles, which seem like composites or more homage to old-fashioned films, perhaps both. McCanlies was inspired by summers with his grandfather, after all. The most enjoyable supporting characters are the animals, from the dog pack with a pig tailing it, to the lion.

Currently, Secondhand Lions is only available on DVD and not Blu-Ray, but the big Texas scenery looks great in widescreen. And right now with Blu-Ray being so hot, the DVD is available at rock-bottom prices. The special features include short features on the making of the film, Haley Joe Osment, and the story of the script, which is worth watching just to hear the convoluted path from page to screen. The deleted scenes are worth watching with the commentary; I understand why they were cut, but it was nice to seem them anyway. And McCanlies' commentary includes hints about Easter eggs.

A modest box-office success, Secondhand Lions deserves more attention. Bypass the grotesquely over-edited for television version. Everybody has some "old characters" in their family tree, and if they're really fortunate, they probably have a story or two worth hearing.

Austin Connection: Filmed entirely in the Greater Austin area, primarily in Pflugerville and Austin, including Austin Studios. Writer-director Tim McCanlies lives in the Austin area, and so does much of the supporting cast and crew. The soundtrack features several songs by the late Don Walser.

Notable Austin Locations: Austin's Symphony Square was transformed into the marketplace where Hub and Jasmine were pursued. The most tripworthy location is the Cele General Store on FM 973, just north of New Sweden (near Manor), where the barbecue/fight scene was filmed. This unassuming little joint has been featured in several films, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003). Call for directions at 512-251-3562 (you'll need to make reservations on Saturday night, it's that popular).

Buy Secondhand Lions from Amazon.