When watching a film like Secondhand Lions (2003), starring Haley Joel Osment as Walter Caldwell, I could not help but whisper at one point “I see dead people.” This is, of course, because of the performance he gave in his most famous movie, The Sixth Sense (1999). Osment also appeared in a few other movies as a kid, but then seemingly dropped off the face of the planet. If you see pictures of him today, he is almost unrecognizable from his fresh adolescent visage, except for the eyes I suppose. He is still around, doing some television and voice work for video games. It is a shame too because he seems to have followed the same flame out track as many child actors, and while he was firmly into his teens in Secondhand Lions it was still a good performance.
Secondhand Lions jumps around a bit in its chronology at the beginning, and I was somewhat confused. We see aged brothers Hub (Robert Duvall) and Garth McCann (Michael Caine) wildly flying a biplane through the Texas countryside in more modern times. And then we cut to the 1960s and Walter being taken to the McCann’s homestead by his mother, Mae (Kyra Sedgwick), to spend some time with his great uncles. On the way, she is telling him that this is necessary while she supposedly starts secretarial classes. She is also trying to get him on board with a plan to find the millions of dollars the two recluses are rumored to have somewhere on their property. She is not the only after their riches. Shortly after Walter is dropped off, a parade of door-to-door salesmen begin showing up trying to part the McCanns from their money with a whole host of baubles. There are also other family members who arrive seeking to secure a place in the McCann will. Hub and Garth spend most of their days waiting for these people on their porch armed with shotguns in a vain attempt to deter the vultures. For Walter, a different mystery develops when he discovers a steamer trunk in his room full of interesting mementos, primarily an old picture of a woman. It is Garth who begins to unravel the backstory of the McCanns, one that involves a variety of incredible adventures in Africa. The woman, as it turns out, was the daughter of a Middle Eastern sultan, one that Hub was able to win the hand of while also earning the respect of the father, though she died some time previously. While the McCann’s past is revealed to Walter, he also teaches them how to live again, telling them they should spend some of their money because what good is having it if they do not enjoy it somewhat. One of their subsequent purchases is a lion, which they intend to release and hunt. The lion, though, turns out to be old and rather lethargic, thus it would not be sporting of them to shoot it as it lounges in its crate. Instead, it becomes Walter’s pet as the lion seems to take a liking to the teenager, and it makes a home for itself in the McCann’s cornfield. Eventually, Mae returns to collect Walter, having lied about the school (which Walter discovers pretty quickly) and instead bringing along a new paramour, Stan (Nicky Katt). He poses as a police officers investigating a series of bank robberies, accusing the McCanns of being the culprits. Stan takes Walter, who had inadvertently discovered the location of the money in the previous scene, and tries to bully Walter into showing the way to it. What saves Walter is the lion, and though it subdues Stan, its heart gives out and it dies. This is enough to convince Stan and Mae that their plan is not worth pursuing. However, as Walter drives away with them, he confronts his mother about her lies and her actions as a mother. This leads her to let him stay with the McCanns while she pursues her own life. The film closes with the grown up Walter (Josh Lucas) receiving the news that the McCanns had crashed their airplane into their barn and died, but had left everything to him in their will.
Much like the characters in our review of The Last Vermeer (2019), the McCanns in Secondhand Lions have trouble letting go of the past. Actually, it is more Hub than Garth, though Garth kind of goes along with whatever Hub thinks is best. This is summed up when Garth begins to open up about Hub’s past, talking about how people can grow old and stay young on the inside, but things can happen that can dim that spirit. We are called to let go of such things as they continue to wound us emotionally for years to come, and this is manifested by Hub in his sleepwalking, searching for his lost woman in his dreams. The only way to heal such scars is through prayer, though in the movie it is Walter’s enthusiasm that brings the brothers back to life.
The Christian aspect I like best in Secondhand Lions, though, is found in Hub’s famous speech that he gives to all young people. The first time we encounter this is when a group of young ruffians try to pick a fight with Hub in a restaurant. Afterwards the young men are brought back to the McCann’s home where Hub gives them his words of wisdom. This piques Walter’s curiosity because he wants to hear the spiel. He does after he earns Hub’s trust. I will not go through the whole thing, but some of the main points align well with Faith. These include the fact that people are basically good, good triumphs over evil, and that true love never dies. Hub concludes these maxims by underscoring how they are worth believing in. They are basically commandments, and in some form or another they can be found in Christianity. Perhaps the best one is how love does not die, a concept literally embodied in Jesus. It is timeless, and any time a film can speak to such ideals you have the makings of something special.
I wholeheartedly recommend Secondhand Lions to any audience. It is a good story, and sweet without being schmaltzy. While I was a bit apprehensive about Michael Caine playing a Texan, he gives a credible performance that is consistent throughout. Yeah, the lion looks a little fake in many of the scenes, but you can live with the less than stellar computer generated image (CGI). All in all, a thoroughly satisfying film experience.