Haley Joel Osment has reached that most dreaded stage in life, adolescence. It’s a difficult time for everyone, but perhaps even more so for former child stars, who live their awkwardness in front of the camera and whose success has been predicated on their embodiment of both “innocence” and “precocity.” Puberty has undone many a young actor: the E! True Hollywood Story is rife with their spectacular failures. There have been a few who have made it through with their careers intact. Drew Barrymore, Anna Paquin, Leo DiCaprio and even Macaulay Culkin (though we did get to see him self-destruct for years) come to mind.
It doesn’t look as if Haley Joel will follow in these latter’s footsteps, if Secondhand Lions is any indication. Osment’s presence here shows that, unlike the Hollywood casualties alluded to above, his own potential failure won’t be because of excessive or self-destructive behavior, but rather because of a steadfast refusal to grow up or mature physically. Throughout, he’s obviously uncomfortable in his changing body. He takes mincing steps that are way to small for his now gangly legs, and he always seems to be crouching in on himself. It’s a little bit creepy. It’s as if he’s well aware that his childhood has been his bread and butter, and he’s willing his body not to change, so he can remain if not a boy, yet at least not an adult man.
It is a bit jarring then, that Osment’s refusal is so clear in Secondhand Lions, in which he plays a young boy very much wanting to grow up, who can’t wait to be a “man.” The opportunity to begin this rite of passage comes when his mother, Mae (Kyra Sedgwick) drops him off to spend “a few weeks” with his batty old uncles Garth (Michael Caine) and Hub (Robert Duvall).
Curmudgeonly and salty in the extreme, Garth and Hub are initially resentful of Walter’s intrusion into their life. In Hub’s estimation, he doesn’t want “some little sissy boy hanging around all summer.” And this attitude is much of the film’s problem. Walter’s maturation and the lessons he must learn in order to be a “man” directly follow a stereotypical script of heteronormative authority and masculine aggression.
The model of masculinity the uncles offer to Walter is that of the colonial adventurer and oppressor. Set in some unspecified year in the early 1950s, Garth and Hub claim to have spent the last 40 years in Northern Africa. Their indoctrination of Walter involves teaching him “manly” lessons through their “classic” tales of life in the French Foreign Legion and crushing “native” uprisings. Along the way, we are treated to any number of racist caricatures — turbaned, greedy sheiks, harems, and evil Arab henchmen who pick their teeth with knives.
Obviously, it’s not the most progressive of representations, though Garth and Hub’s perspective may be close to the truth of colonialist exploitation. But it’s a troubling message in a “family film,” especially considering the current state of Arab American relations, and the experiences of Arab Americans within the States. Then again, it’s precisely this neocolonial cowboy image that Dubya has been promoting in his version of America’s role in world affairs and the “war on terrorism.”
The model of manhood offered by the uncles, then, is based in an “independence” asserted through the oppression of foreign cultures, and is subtended by the propensity for casual violence, and the rejection of all things feminine.
In their dotage, both Garth and Hub cling to violence as emblem of their manliness. Garth is clearly scared of getting older and losing the physical strength and prowess by which he measured his worth, and so is always itching for or picking a fight. Both men are never far from their guns, using them to “fish” in the pond out back and to scare away traveling salesmen with potshots from the front porch. The phallic imagery of guns as associated with male potency is everywhere in Secondhand Lions.
All this aggression is to help “cure” Walter of his “sissy,” “weenie” ways, which are, of course, aligned with femininity. It’s hardly surprising that in this homosocial environment women are either “evil,” like Mae, who lies incessantly and is, in the uncles’ parlance, “loose” or they are, like Garth’s one true love Jasmine (Emmanuelle Vaugier), exotic, absolutely perfect, and silent — not to mention dead.
Suffice it to say, Secondhand Lions takes these lessons in imperial and violent masculinity at face value and by the end little Walter has dutiful learned the trajectory he must follow to become a man. The lack of self-awareness of the film in these regards is rather irresponsible, and a bit surprising, considering that director and writer Tim McCanlies also penned The Iron Giant, a deft critique of intolerance and bigotry.
The only potential saving grace of the film is that just as he learns from his uncles, Walter also teaches them a thing or two about how to survive in a post-colonial, and post-WWII America. The secondary plot of the film concerns the fortune Garth and Hub have amassed during their many travels. Of course everyone wants to know if rumors of the money are true, where/how the men got it, where it’s hidden and how they can get their hands on it.
The real scandal of all their money, though, is that Garth and Hub don’t know what to do with it. As Walter asks them, “What’s the use of having all that money if you don’t spend it?” Consumerism and the valorization of the self through material goods are the lessons in post-War masculinity that Walter teaches his uncles. Before Walter shows them how to find their self-worth in their wealth, the men are doomed to live in the past. Once they start spending, their life takes on new richness and meaning and they owe it all to Walter’s steadfast materialism. Despite all of his sissy and weenie ways then, Walter represents the soft, suburban, commercialized masculinity emerging in 1950s America. In embracing the consumerism on which that new masculinity would be based, Garth and Hub acknowledge that the model that they represent is as tired and worn out as they are.