Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Head Injury

Genre: Black Comedy
Premise: After a high school kid finally lands the girl of his dreams, she becomes severely crippled in an accident, and fully expects him to continue with his boyfriend duties.
About: Head Injury made the lower half of the 2006 Black List. I don’t know much about the writers though, other than they have one project set up at Dreamworks called “Bromance.” I’d heard of the script but figured it to be yet another run-of-the-mill comedy. However, after reading Head Injury, I’m not so sure that’s the case. These two are not afraid to explore the deepest darkest corners of the mind.
Writers: Barry Schwartz & Raza Syed
Details: 104 pages – July 11, 2006 (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Ho. Ly. Shit.

Black (or “Dark”) comedies never do that well at the box office, but the screenwriting world loves them. From The Voices to The Beaver to Heathers to Election, each of these scripts seeks to dig deep into our psyche and test just how fucked up the chewy center is. If you’re laughing when a deranged lunatic who talks to his cat lobs off his girlfriend’s head and keeps it in the refrigerator…well, that means you got problems dear. But don’t sweat it, because it means I got problems too.

The question with Black Comedies is “How far is too far?” What is the line that can and cannot be crossed? To me, that line is Peter Berg’s “Very Bad Things.” If you become too relentless in the darkness. If every scene pushes the limit of taste. If there’s no balance whatsoever. A black comedy can quickly turn into a piece of shit. I still remember that final scene in Very Bad Things where they’re on the lawn in wheelchairs. It gives me the shivers to this day. If they ever make a sequel to Being John Malkovich, please don’t let the person’s head they go into be Peter Berg.

I bring this up because Head Injury is daring enough to walk that line. And while at its best it reminds you of films like Election, at its worst, it brings me back to the overbaked weirdness of Very Bad Things.

10 year old Ethan is a fatty. And 10 year old fatties, as you know, are easy targets. So every day at school, Ethan’s life is a living nightmare, with bullies stacked on top of bullies rearranging their schedules to bully him. And yet all Ethan can do is think about beautiful Kaitlin, the most popular and beautiful (if not the nicest) girl in school.

So one day, after getting embarrassed during one of those dreaded “climb the rope” sessions in gym class (no climbing of any rope can end well for a fat kid), Ethan decides to change his life. He starts exercising. He starts eating better. He starts lifting weights. And by the time Ethan hits 17, he’s one of the most popular kids in high school.

It is at the height of his powers then, during a school field trip, that the sparks between him and Kaitlin finally fly, in the back seat of the bus no less, and Kaitlin decides to orally reward him for his newfound popularity.

And then, during this exchange, the bus crashes. Everybody ends up being all right. Everybody, that is, except for Kaitlin, whose body has been mangled and twisted beyond recognition. But the good news, she’s still alive!

Or is it?

What Ethan doesn’t know is that by engaging in this act with Kaitlin, he has unofficially made himself her official boyfriend. Parents, teachers, friends, all look to Ethan to stand by Kaitlin’s side, and boy is that stand going to be tough. Kaitlin has a myriad of health issues, not excluding a “collapsed vagina,” whatever that means. And to make matters worse, Kaitlin, who’s now essentially the female version of Stephen Hawking, decides to come back to school.

Here’s the thing though. Kaitlin still acts like the same popular bitch she was before the accident. She still bosses people around, still expects everyone to bow to her, still wants to be part of the cheerleading team. But worst of all, she still treats her boyfriend (or in this case, her new boyfriend) like a puppy that must obey every command or feel her wrath.

Ethan has no idea how this all happened. He’s been chasing Kaitlin his entire life. And now, when he’s finally got her, she’s……this??? And he never even officially became her boyfriend! He was getting a blowjob from her on the bus! Problem is, he can’t break up with her. Kaitlin’s friends, her parents and school faculty, all keep telling him what an amazing person he is for sticking it out and helping Kaitlin through this horrible time.

In the meantime, Ethan’s former best friend from grade school, Sela, who he ditched when he became popular, has grown up into Alternative Hot Girl, and become the only person Ethan can confide in about all this. The two start sleeping together and plotting a path to freedom. Except that with each passing day, it becomes harder and harder to push Kaitlin out of his life. So if he doesn’t act soon, he’s going to be stuck with this…thing…forever.

This script is harsh. I mean it really pushes the boundaries. Kaitlin is the foreman of ultimate bitches. At one point, she tells Ethan that if he doesn’t have sex with her, she’s going to report to the police that he raped her. It’s reverse rape. And that sex scene (or attempted sex scene) has to be one of the most awkward unpleasant disgusting scenes I have ever read. It’s not for the faint-hearted, that’s for sure.

The problem with Head Injury is that all of the characters are either unlikeable or weak, so you don’t really have anyone to root for. Kaitlin is obviously the worst person on the planet. But Ethan just goes along with it. He’s such a weak individual that after awhile you want to punch him in the gonads and say, “Dude, stand up to her already!”

Sela represents an opportunity to salvage this, but then she too becomes difficult to like. She begins the movie as a calm cute slightly nerdy best friend. And when they’re older, she’s much the same way. But then out of nowhere she becomes this sex-addict triple-nympho who goes psycho ballistic at the mere mention of Kaitlin’s name, who she proclaims destroyed her life.

Herein lies the issue with Head Injury. Dark comedy can be great. But you need at least one character to latch onto.  I'm not saying they have to be “likable” necessarily. But someone you care about enough to root for. And I didn’t see that here. Everyone was either despicable or annoyingly passive. And this goes back to something we always talk about. If your main character is too passive, it’s only a matter of time before the audience grows frustrated with them.

Technically, Ethan does have a goal – to dump Kaitlin. But the application of that goal is so wimpy as to be non-existent. He only tries to do it a couple of times, and the rest of the script is Kaitlin pissing on him in every way imaginable.

But there were character choices I liked. Such as keeping Kaitlin a bitch even after she’d become handicapped. This movie would have just been sad if she’d gotten injured and gurgled her way through conversations and ate everything through a straw. We wouldn’t have been able to handle that without wanting to slit our wrists. So the fact that she still thinks she’s little miss popular and that the world should revolve around her was kinda funny.

I can’t recommend Head Injury because it crosses that line I mentioned earlier. The reverse-rape scene pole-vaulted this thing to Disturbedville. But I will say this about the script. You remember it. I forget 90% of the scripts I read within a week. This script I will remember, and I suppose that’s why it ended up on the Black List. What did you think?

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Character consistency. You can’t just change your character’s behavior at whim. A character’s actions must stay consistent with their personality and motivations throughout the screenplay. Kaitlin and Selma are perfect examples of violating this rule. Kaitlin is the world’s most heartless person. She doesn’t have an emotional bone in her body. So in that reverse-rape scene, when she starts crying about how difficult it is to be crippled, we don’t believe a word of it, because it’s not in her nature, as set up in the previous 90 pages. Likewise with Sela. This girl is nice and sweet and thoughtful and smart one moment. Then the next moment she becomes a raging lunatic nymphomaniac. It was like reading an entirely different character. Always keep your character’s behavior consistent. If they are going to change, you must take the time to set that up, or else it’ll feel like it’s coming out of nowhere.