It needs to have a cute, little kid who is always outsmarting the grown-ups. There. That’s it. That’s what’s going to make your movie stand above the rest: a little kid — a cute, little kid — and he has to be clever and cute, and, most importantly, he must outsmart the grown-ups. That’s what the audience wants, and that’s what you will give them.
Here’s why this is going to work. Let’s say you’ve got this other guy in your movie, this uptight accountant-type. A real square peg who’s always bringing the mood down with his lectures and polo shirt. He thinks he’s going to spend all of the movie — all of your movie — in full control of the situation, playing by his rules, keeping that audible pack of muddy, copulating dogs outside and far away from his impeccably furnished billiard room, right? Wrong. Because while we may be bullied into living under his heel, not everyone is so meek. And “not everyone” in this case happens to be four-foot-nothing, wearing a devilish grin and with the dogs in tow. Pandemonium. In the blink of an eye, revenge is his. And now where is our square peg? What has become of his rules? Smashed to pieces, along with his precious ship-in-a-bottle fleet. The so-called “man” destroyed, weeping. Exeunt.
The kid should be eight years old, nine max. Any older than that, and he gets less cute and less little and you run the risk that he comes across as a smarmy pre-teen, which is a dangerous play. At that point, the audience bristles a bit, they get resentful. They look into his face, which has fully formed angles and a mouth full of permanent teeth and they see their own personal villain there, laughing and laughing and laughing. Someone like that is not an asset to your movie.
And don’t you dare skimp on the tricks that this cute, little kid runs on the grown-ups. The movie cannot merely consist of the kid offering a few sarcastic quips or eye-rolls. Take that garbage back to the dump where you found it. We’re talking mother-loving pranks here: super glue on the toilet seat, Ex-Lax in the punch bowl, locking everyone in the Tilt-A-Whirl and cranking the speed to “Watch Out!” We want tie-dyed cats, convertibles filled with soap suds, and fraudulent pizza deliveries, and we want them hard and fast. If there’s a mean older brother, snooty store clerk, or bumbling mall security guard, this kid needs to be ready with quick wits and maybe a yellow backpack filled with smoke bombs and other mischief implements. Whatever goes down has to be a total spectacle, something that forces all the square pegs in the world to regret they ever laid eyes on your kid, let alone made him run laps at soccer practice. Make them pay. At a bare minimum, your kid should be switching the marching band’s sheet music to “The Monster Mash” to show up a certain know-it-all music teacher. Obviously, it doesn’t have to be the exact same prank, but you should at least be willing to commit to that level of vandalism, or no one’s going to take your movie seriously.
Now be warned that a lot of guys will try to tell you otherwise. Certain auteurs will push for relatable characters, compelling plot, snappy dialogue, yadda yadda. Forget about all that. Think of the great works of cinema. Casablanca. Dog Day Afternoon. Out of Africa. On the Waterfront. What’s the common thread there? I don’t even need to say it at this point, but I will, anyway: a cute, little kid who outsmarts the grown-ups while looking directly into the camera and winking. It just plain works.
Because we are astonished. We’re amazed at his cunning, that he does so easily the things life has proven us too small for. And because of our smallness, we despise him as well. Because he is unafraid, and that boldness makes our cowardice all the more sickening. So we gape at his exploits in awe, yet nursing a dark jealousy that clutches feebly at each smirking deception and sabotaged ballet recital. The term for that is “duality.”
Anyway, I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much at once. There’s obviously a lot of pretty technical stuff we can get into if you’re willing to be patient. Just remember that the most fundamental rule of filmmaking is to give the subject matter the respect it deserves, and to try to get a kid with red hair. Blonde is okay, but don’t bother with brown, unless it’s in a shiny bowl cut. But red if you can get it. I look forward to hearing from you.
The Humor Section features a piece of original humor writing each week. To submit, send an email to Brian Boone.