Thursday, August 20, 2009

Anatomy Of A Stick Figure

Genre: Drama (Independent)
Premise: A high school teacher deals with the death of his daughter in his own unique way.
About: This received one teensy tiny vote on the 2005 Black List, the first year the list was released. On that year Juno was the number two script on the list and Lars And The Real Girl was number three. Both went on to garner Oscar nominations and Juno won. So the list has some pedigree. Makowka is also the first director to take advantage of Michigan's new 40% film production tax incentive, shooting his new film, "Tug," completely in Holland, Michigan. As a note to how quickly a working writer must think on his feet, "Tug" was initially set in Los Angeles, but when it was realized how much money they could save in Michigan, Makowka rewrote the entire story to take place in Holland (despite never having been to Michigan!)
Writer: Abram Makowka

I'm not quite sure how to follow up a review where two of the most beautiful actresses in the world partake in an aggressive lesbian love scene. I suppose I'd have to be the one to leak an Angelina Jolie sex tape. Or maybe be the blogger that found Bin Laden. So, instead of trying, I'm going to go all the way to the opposite end of the spectrum and review a quiet little script that received a single solitary vote on the 2005 Black List called "Anatomy Of A Stick Figure." Why? Because when I started Scriptshadow, I imagined reviewing a lot more of these scripts and now I feel guilty. That's why.

Hale, 40s, is a high school history teacher with a genuine love for teaching - the kind of guy who could stand toe-to-toe with Mr. Holland and come away unscathed. Hale spends the majority of his time putting together 16mm films that distort history in a way that forces his students to question everything that they know about the past. Hale is also a little distant. No, let me take that back. He's a lot distant. When he's not up in front of 25 sets of intensely focused eyeballs, he becomes so disconnected with the world, he might as well not even exist. This is problematic in that he has a wife, Aris, whom he despises, and a 16 year old daughter, Sal, who despises him. Despite Hale using everything in his limited arsenal to make a connection with his daughter, it always ends up in her hating him more.

Sal looks for comfort in her rebel almost-boyfriend, Lewis, who's too busy incurring the wrath of his abusive deadbeat father, Pete (known as Popsicle Pete because he drives an ice cream truck) to give Sal his full attention. But as the story progresses and the two grow closer, Sal sneaks out one night to meet with Lewis. Instead she gets stuck in his house with Popsicle Pete, who gets her drunk and tops it off with a little bit of crack - White Trash, USA-style. The next morning Hale and Aris wake up to find their daughter in her bed, dead.

One of the cool things about Anatomy is that it's never too up and it's never too down. People are sad about Sal's death, but the focus shifts more towards Hale's inability to deal with his emotions, as he hasn't had to use them in sixteen years. He finds himself pulled into an unexpected friendship with Lewis, and for the first time in a long time, Hale is actually able to open up to someone.

In the meantime, Pete has been lucky that no one's traced Sal's death back to him, but as Lewis begins to spend more time with Sal's father, Pete becomes paranoid that critical information will be exchanged and his secret will be outed. As a result, Lewis and Pete's relationship becomes intensely violent. It's pretty clear that at some point, it's going to be one or the other.

Anatomy is a script that never quite finds its rhythm, but in a strange way I think it works. Sal actually begins the screenplay dead. Then we jump back in time and get to know her. Then she dies somewhere around the middle. At which point we have no idea where the story's going to go. And then this weird but interesting friendship evolves between Lewis and Hale, and Hale tries to find some peace, some connection to his daughter in death, that he never had when she was alive. As most of you know, I like it when a script keeps me guessing, so Anatomy won points for that.

If there's a problem with the script, it's that Makowka makes his characters really hard to like. Take Sal for instance. While she may be a confused teenager desperately searching for someone to love her, she also comes off as a whiny bitch who finds fault in everything. I'm not wishing death on this girl. But to mourn someone I never liked in the first place is a lot to ask. While Sal's the strongest example, the truth is, it's hard to like any of these characters. The wife is selfish and condescending. Pete is an abusive alcoholic. And Hale is so distant, we have just as much trouble connecting with him as he does with others.

Luckily Anatomy had a surprising ending that explains exactly why Hale is the way he is - and by association, why the dynamic of the family is so fucked up. It's a nice unexpected surprise that forces you to look back on everything you read and reevaluate it. If you liked Rachel Getting Married or The Squid And The Whale, this script may just be the weekend read you're looking for.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest

[x] worth the read

[ ] impressive

[ ] genius

What I learned: Try to keep your tone consistent throughout your script. One of the most common mistakes I see is tone that floats all over the place. Although I enjoyed Anatomy Of A Stick Figure, there was one aspect that took me out of the story: Popsicle Pete. I don't know if you remember reading my review for Fiasco Heights, but there's a character in that script who also drives an ice cream truck named something like "Blowpop Billy". Now see because the tone of that film is all video game, the name and character made sense. Here, it comes off as cartoonish and doesn't work. Know what your tonal boundaries are and stay within them. Keep that tone consistent!