Premise: Released after a 20 year stint in prison, a man is ready to spend the rest of his life on cruise-control, until he befriends a strange young boy who lives next door.
About: Palmer finished on last year’s Black List. The writer, Cheryl Guerriero, wrote a Spanish film before this called “The Hunting Season.”
Writer: Cheryl Guerriero
Details: 122 pages
In honor of the controversial backwater memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” getting the movie treatment via Ron Howard (people say the author of that book was “The Trump Whisperer”), I thought I’d review another “struggling white middle-class” script. Although this one doesn’t contain any Trump controversy. At least none that I noticed.
Eddie Palmer, pushing 40, has just been released from prison. He did a dumb thing when he was 20, robbing a bank, ruining any chance he had of living a normal life. He stumbles back to his grandmother’s house (Vivian) and asks if he can stay there while he gets his shit together.
Vivian loves Palmer, but she’s still smarting after what he did. She says he can stay, but only if he comes to church on Sundays. Meanwhile, next door, drug-addict Shelly is so busy running around with abusive men that she can’t take care of her seven year-old son, Sam.
Sam is different. All the other boys like sports. Sam likes dolls. And dresses. His dream is to be accepted into the Princess Club. Because Shelley’s never around, the burden of taking care of Sam has been shifted to Vivian. And Vivian’s just fine with that. Sam may be different. But he’s the nicest boy you’ll ever meet.
Now you have to understand, this area of the country isn’t exactly West Hollywood. A little boy who likes dolls is going to have it rough. And when Palmer meets Sam, he doesn’t know what to make of him. At first, he tries to keep his distance. But Sam keeps chatting his ear off, and he’s so darn charming that Palmer starts to like him.
(spoiler!) Just when things are getting copacetic in the house, Vivian dies. Which means Palmer has to take care of Sam on his own. Palmer’s actually becoming well suited for that. It’s everybody else who’s the problem. Should a man who just got out of prison really be taking care of an unrelated seven year-old boy? And why would a man want to take care of a little boy anyway?
Palmer’s one cheerleader is Maggie, a teacher who can tell that Sam genuinely loves Palmer. But the rest of the town isn’t on board. And as the powers-that-be put the squeeze on the arrangement, Palmer and Sam must prepare for reality – that Palmer can no longer be his guardian.
Man, this is a tough subject-matter to write a spec off of.
I don’t mean in the dramatic sense. I mean commercially. You’re basically writing about people being people. There’s no concept. There’s no hook. Actually, there’s a bit of a hook but it’s far from a “poster” hook.
I see so many of these scripts disappear, even when they’re good, because they don’t have that commercial appeal that producers require. And I don’t want to get too into this. But guys, remember, you’re selling scripts to people who are trying to make a living. These aren’t folks with Floyd Mayweather money who do this as a hobby.
Every potential buyer looks at a script and, at some point, asks, “Will anybody go and see this?”
I just want you to keep that in mind when you’re coming up with your next script idea. I’d never say don’t write something you’re passionate about. But at least consider the commercial aspects of your idea, because I guarantee you producers will.
The good news for Palmer is that it’s one of the good ones. This is a beautifully constructed character piece, one of the best I’ve read all year.
That beauty rests in the main relationship, between Palmer and Sam. Regardless of whether you’re writing a straight character piece or a giant blockbuster in the vein of Fast and Furious, you should spotlight the key relationship in the story and make it as interesting/compelling/conflict-filled as possible. That relationship will be the heart of your film. So if it’s not interesting, we won’t care about anything else.
Here you have Palmer, who’s an old-school conservative tough guy. There you have Sam, a little boy with likes to wear make-up and dresses. Before you’ve done any extra work on the characters, this setup is going to give you some interesting scenes.
On top of that, Guerriero adds other things to create more contrast in the relationship. Palmer rarely speaks. Sam can’t shut up. Palmer is hard to like. Sam is the most likable kid on the planet. Palmer is a Negative Nancy. Sam is a Positive Paula. All of these factors contribute to a series of interactions you can’t look away from.
One of my favorite things to watch here was Sam win Palmer over. Palmer is initially weirded out by how effeminate Sam is and how he carries around dolls. But Sam never gives up. One night, when the two are eating spaghetti, Sam notices that he’s got all the meatballs in his bowl and Palmer has none.
So Sam leans over and scoops a few meatballs into Palmer’s bowl. “You don’t like meatballs?” Palmer asks. “They’re my favorite,” Sam says. I mean if you don’t fall in love with this kid at that point, you have no heart.
The structure is fairly solid, but you can tell that Guerriero isn’t as comfortable with that component as she is character. I would’ve given this script a mega-impressive had it not faltered at the end, where too many endings were stacked on top of one another. I sensed trouble from the start when I saw 122 pages on the page count. “What small character piece takes 122 pages to tell?” I thought. Then, the whole way through the script, I’m thinking, “Wow, it’s still not dragging. None of these pages are being wasted.” But then the third act arrives and there’s just too much going on (a court case, a house sale, a kidnapping, lots of characters talking about what should happen). It killed the momentum of the story.
Sometimes we overthink our endings and that may be what happened here.
But outside of that, this was a really nice little script. If you’re someone who gets the note, “Your characters are thin” or “Your character development is weak,” check this script out. You can definitely learn a thing or two from it.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Never ever write a perfect character. Even if a character is supposed to be perfect, don’t write them as perfect. You know why? Because perfect is manipulative. Since nobody is perfect, when you write a “perfect” character, the audience senses that they’re being manipulated. Even Sam, who it would’ve been so easy to write “perfect,” has a flaw. He steals things. And thank God he did. Because it humanized him. If he didn’t steal, I might’ve thought, “This kid is too good to be true.”