In the humorous drama Secondhand Lions, two eccentric old brothers in rural, 1950s Texas keep sacks of money hidden in their ramshackle barn. As gold-digging relatives compete for their mysterious fortune, one nephew on the cusp of adolescence slowly discovers that the most valuable inheritance his great-uncles could leave is the least sought after—the exotic stories and rich personalities of the men themselves. Despite some profanity, Secondhand Lions’ gifted cast, smart writing and moral compass make this unassuming little film a good one for teens, parents and grandparents to experience together.
Confidence. Strength. Vision. According to producer Corey Sienega, “These are things that can be given to you by anyone who truly cares about you ... somebody who believes in you and who’ll remind you that you’re special, that you’re worth it. Ultimately, I think the movie is about believing in yourself, and a reminder to believe in the good qualities in other people—even during the difficult times.”
Walter has seen his share of difficult times. Sadly, the only significant person in his life is his deceitful, avaricious mother, who hasn’t given him much to believe in. When she decides to take a summer road trip alone, Walter (Haley Joel Osment) gets dropped on the doorstep of two crusty retirees he has never met. Her parting mandate? “Find out where they hide their money!”
The mousy 12-year-old isn’t party to her greed. In fact, he’s no more interested in spending the summer with the McCann brothers than they are in hosting him. There’s no phone. No TV. All these codgers want to do is sit on their rickety front porch, sip iced tea and wait with rifles in their laps for the inevitable parade of salesmen eager to separate them from their millions (they don’t actually hit anyone). With a dismissive tone they tell Walter, “We don’t know much about kids, so if you need somethin’, find it yourself. Or better yet, do without.”Walter sleeps in a dusty attic where he finds a trunk pasted with shipping labels from all over the world. Inside lies the photo of a beautiful woman. Walter asks his Uncle Garth (Michael Caine) who she is. In periodic installments that appear throughout the balance of the film, Garth spins a tale of how he and his adventure-seeking brother, Hub (Robert Duvall), journeyed to Europe, landed in the French Foreign Legion, rescued a maiden and outsmarted a wealthy sheik. Viewers see Garth’s yarn played out in the style of Saturday matinee serials from the 1940s and ‘50s. Chases. Sword fights. Swells of romantic music. The stories captivate the boy, creating a sense of wonder and adventure. But is Garth’s story for real?
As for the ornery Hub, he’s having a hard time coming to grips with aging. Duvall says of his character, “It’s not that he’s getting old; it bothers him because he’s becoming useless.” Hub’s body may be slowing down, but his spirit is so active that it stirs him in the middle of the night (Walter sees him sleepwalking, parrying and thrusting a plunger at an unseen foe). While Garth is the more sensitive of the brothers, Hub is a workhorse who totes heavy loads and holds his own against four knife-wielding punks. The longer Walter spends in their company, the more his imagination is stimulated and the more he grows to appreciate his uncles.
Meanwhile, Walter inspires Garth and Hub to start enjoying their money. They buy a skeet shooter. They invest in seeds and plant a garden. But their oddest indulgence has to be a used lioness from the circus. Decked out in safari gear, the brothers prepare to release the beast and hunt it down for sport, though she turns out to be a much better pet for Walter than “big game” for their fragile male egos.
As the summer wears on, the brothers soften around the edges. Walter comes out of his shell. But just when it seems they’ve bonded, gossipy locals cast aspersions on how the McCanns got so filthy rich. And the boy who has spent years enduring a mother’s lies learns that his newfound heroes may have feet of clay.
Screenwriter Tim McCanlies (who also wrote The Iron Giant) finished scribing Secondhand Lions 10 years ago. The film’s trip to the screen would have taken less time, but McCanlies insisted on directing it himself. “I think a lot of people would have put Jim Carrey in this with old makeup and made it a stupid comedy,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “This is about something so important, and that is, ‘What do we teach boys?’”
What does this movie teach boys, or anyone else willing to part with the price of admission? Among other things, it reminds younger viewers to value their aging relatives as unique, substantive individuals with stories to tell and wisdom to impart. It also urges senior citizens to finish strong and refuse to believe that their best years are behind them.
Although the film contains violence, it’s not disturbing. Despite casualties, flurries of swashbuckling swordplay are bloodless and handled with humor— filtered through Walter’s innocent imagination. Within those tales, Hub is portrayed as a man of mercy. Just as David did in 1 Samuel 24 and 26, the young Hub of Garth’s stories twice spares the life of the Arab ruler trying to kill him. And after defending himself against a gang of hoods brandishing switchblades (no one gets cut or stabbed), Hub escorts them back to his house to treat their wounds, feed them and lecture them on “what every boy needs to know about being a man.”
The main spoiler for families will be profanity. It’s mild, but common (about two dozen uses of “h---“ or “d--n”). There is also an indelicate reference to breast feeding. Fortunately, the Lord’s name is spared and young Walter never swears. Rather, in an attempt to paint Hub as grouchy and brusque, McCanlies makes him the primary offender.
Hub may be cranky, but the wisdom he dispenses will have parents and teens talking long after the lights come up. He tells Walter there are some things in life we just have to believe in, whether or not they appear to be true in the world around us. They include believing the best of people and establishing healthy priorities. “Men are basically good,” he says. “Courage, honor and virtue mean everything. Money and power mean nothing. Good always triumphs over evil and true love never dies. Those are the things worth believing in.”
It’s that need to cling to noble values apart from their pragmatism that, to this day, leads parents to teach their children that honesty is the best policy, even when a quick scan of the culture might suggest otherwise. Duvall boils Hub’s sermonizing down to this: “Don’t mimic the actions of others, but hold yourself to a higher standard.” That’s exactly what these filmmakers have done by creating a movie that eschews gaudy special effects, wild action and gratuitous eroticism in favor of character and virtue.