Secondhand Lions

Inciting Event: On his first night sleeping in the dusty and frightening “tower” in his great-uncles’ house (where his mother dumped him), Walter spies a steamer trunk covered with travel labels from all over the world. He unlocks it and discovers a photograph of a beautiful, exotic woman. It’s the pacing and the rhythm here that indicates the importance of this event, since viewers have no understanding of or connection to the woman in the photo as yet. This is also where Walter first discovers his grumpy Uncle Hub outside, reenacting sword duels in his sleep. Something strange is going on—even though he has no idea what at this point.

First Plot Point: After learning that his mother lied to him about her whereabouts (again), Walter decides to return to live with his uncles. This isn’t a passive decision on his part. It’s an active choice, which makes him a willing resident on the farm for the first time in the story. That night, he again discovers Hub sword fighting in his sleep. Uncle Garth tells him the first of the stories about his and Hub’s youthful exploits. This gives Walter the new plot goal of learning everything he can about the mysterious Jasmine.

It’s interesting to note how the Jasmine subplot ties this whole story together. Arguably, the movie opens with Walter leaving his Normal World when his mother dumps him at his uncles’. And yet we still see the decided shift into the main conflict here at the First Plot Point, where Walter enters the main story and the imaginative world of Garth’s stories about Hub and Jasmine.

First Pinch Point: After stubbornly loading the truck with fifty-pound bags of lion chow (for the worn-out circus lion he and Garth just purchased), Hub collapses and has to be taken to the hospital. This neatly emphasizes what’s at stake for all the characters: Walter stands to lose his aging uncle and Hub is obviously losing his youth.

Midpoint: After storming out of the hospital, Hub takes up the challenge of an obnoxious gang of teenage greasers—and beats the tar out of them. Walter is thrilled to see proof of Garth’s heroic stories in action. This is the moment where he truly begins to believe in his uncles—especially Hub.

Second Pinch Point: Hub buys a World War I-era biplane, and Walter realizes Hub has a death wish. Again, this beautifully emphasizes what’s at stake for all the characters and what they stand to lose. Walter begs Hub to stick around long enough to someday give Walter his speech about “what every boy needs to know about being a man.”

Third Plot Point: Walter’s mother returns with her latest abusive boyfriend. They claim Hub and Garth are thieves who have been lying to Walter about how they became rich. This is a trying low point on a number of levels: first, the return of Walter’s horrible mother is an objectively bad thing (even though it’s what he’s been wanting throughout the story); second, it forces him to confront all his worst fears and doubts about the uncles he’s come to love. But he rises from his low point and chooses to reject his mother’s lies. He refuses to reveal the money’s whereabouts, even when her boyfriend starts to beat him.

Climax: Even though the lion has to save Walter from the boyfriend, his mother still decides to take him away with her the next morning. Walter is forced into a final confrontation with his mother when she reveals she’s still not going to break up with her boyfriend. He jumps out of the car and insists she let him live with his uncles.

Climactic Moment: Walter returns to his uncles on the farm and lays down “conditions” to make sure they stay alive long enough to raise him.

Resolution: Twenty years later, Walter’s uncles die when they crash the bi-plane. The grandson of a “very powerful sheikh” arrives, and Walter realizes Garth’s stories were all true after all.

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